PRODUCERS of the popular television programs “Pawn Stars,” “Survivor” and even “Downton Abbey” should not have any great concerns about their newest competition — meetings of the Columbus City Council and other local commissions.
The council was scheduled to enter the age of live video streaming at Monday night’s meeting, providing residents (and anyone else around the world) the online opportunity to view the proceedings as they occur. Council members acknowledge that viewership is not exactly going to qualify for a Nielsen rating, but note that this process is about much more than striving for must-watch entertainment.
This step is an important element in improving openness in city government. It makes proceedings much more available to residents and provides them the opportunity to observe council meetings from their home, office or just about anywhere.
Up to this time, attendance at these meetings was the only venue available to the public. The meetings were recorded on audio tape but gaining access also required an in-person visit to City Hall.
Would-be viewers do not even have to set aside the meeting times of the affected government bodies to access the city’s website. All streamed meetings also will be archived and available for viewing at the constituent’s choice of time.
Some council members have expressed doubts as to any significant increase in public interest about interactions among city officials. Traditionally, most council meetings are attended by a small group of regulars and people or groups with direct interests in an issue the council is scheduled to address at a particular time. It usually takes a very controversial topic, such as the smoking ban or the lifting of Toter fees, to fill the council’s meeting room.
Whether public awareness of city government activities is dramatically increased by greater and easier accessibility to meetings is yet to be determined. With both the live streaming and archiving of meetings in place, one fact is indisputably clear. Residents have no excuse for ignorance of what the council is doing in their name.
There is a price for this increased access. The upgrades at City Hall that were required to implement this process came to about $58,000. In addition, the city will pay $189 each month to a company that will provide the service and archive the meetings.
There is a certain irony in this expense. Previous city leaders had been aware of the potential for this kind of electronic public access and created a telecommunications fund in the 1980s that set aside cable franchise fees in a separate account that when built to a certain level would fund projects such as this from the amassed interest.
That fund was depleted in 2001 when the City Council was approached by a group called the Connected Community, which had asked for $15,000 to fund a pilot project that would provide Internet access to a small number of local schoolchildren. The council shocked the group by awarding it $900,000 and asked it to provide Internet access to all sixth-graders.
Later the council closed the city’s telecommunications fund, with the cable franchise fees instead directed into the Columbus Technology Fund. In that respect it can be said that cable franchise fees have funded the kind of project for which they were intended to be used, if only in a roundabout manner.
Regardless of how we got there, giving the public greater access to the workings of government is money well spent.