In my searches for transparency related news, I recently came across an article entitled “Airing public meetings: transparency or a circus?” from the Southtown Star out of Chicago, IL (May 22, 2010). The article centers on the New Lenox District 122 school district, which recently confronted the issue of whether or not to continue to air their public meetings. Historically, the school district has been one of the only districts to air their meetings on cable television. This has been made possible because the municipalities of New Lenox and Mokena have made meeting rooms complete with video equipment available to all governing bodies in the municipality, thus making the cost of airing meetings more feasible.
However, despite the reduced cost, the school district recently decided to stop airing their public meetings. To back this decision up, New Lennox provided a laundry list of reasons not to air public meetings, and the article did its best to seek out other justifications for eliminating this public service. The New Lennox district made its decision based on the fact that as election season approaches, the publicly broadcast meetings often become a form of free advertising for not only challengers but incumbents as well. This grandstanding often results in direct personal attacks on board members by challengers and frequent aggressive debates between electoral opponents. Other districts in the Chicago area cited such reasons as a lack of interest and attendance and a lack of volunteers or equipment. In addition, the Lincoln-Way school district cited equality issues, focusing on the numerous residents who would not have meeting access due to a lack of cable television. And finally, New Lennox board president Kathy Markus justified their own decision by stating that meetings should not be taped because they are an opportunity to “not really worry about what we are saying.”
While these reasons may provide some justification, they in now way provide an adequate defense for the decision to not record and air meetings. While grandstanding may be an issue, it can usually be prevented with a few basic rules. In addition, the extra focus during election time may shed light on problems with either incumbents or challengers which may aid voters in determining whom to support. In addition, the lack of volunteers may be solved by easily enlisting local schools or libraries, most of which already posses basic recording equipment. The library in my community of Euclid OH already records and posts videos of city council meetings and committees in the interest of preserving historical information about the city. In addition, the article itself cited high school video clubs as a potential group to tape school board meetings. In addition, while lack of interest may slow a public bodies decision to record meetings, the public interest at the time of the recording is in no way indicative of the potential interest in the meeting in the future. Finally, a lack of mutual access can be solved by not only airing the meetings on television, but also streaming them online, a resource which most of the community has access to at some level.
This issue of justifying the recording of open meetings came up during one of our weekly Friday FOIA chats. During this chat, the participants of FOIA Friday also developed a laundry list of reasons most of which help to overcome the justifications of the Chicago area school boards. While this list incorporates many of the reasons i mentioned above, it also includes other factors that may encourage communities to begin recording all of their public meetings. The following is a compiled list of justifications mentioned by FOIA chat participants:
Benefits to public officials
- Accessibility is obviously key for transparency. More accessible meetings means greater trust in the government from citizens.
- A method of civic engagement. Meetings available online whenever citizens need them would increase interest in local government.
- Politically, officials would be able to prove their value to their constituents and sometimes use videos against their opponents.
- Officials can provide context for actions; justify decisions, prove they were taken out of context or misquoted.
- Public officials can research what was discussed before so that they can better remember what was hashed out.
- Possibility of fewer FOIA requests due to info online already for citizens. Self-service on the part of citizens.
Integrity of information
- Historical context: could be interesting for historical studies.
- Videos provide truth, meeting minutes don’t always.
- Recording gives quotes, color, context.
- Tone of voice & body language are also important.
Benefits to citizens
- When main meetings are during regular work hours, video posted online is a solution for both governments and citizens.
- Online meetings reach citizens where they are on their time, 24/7.
Hopefully, New Lennox and any other public body who is not currently airing meetings will reconsider their decision and employ a few of the tactics and justifications mentioned here to beginning doing so. The mass recording of public meetings will not only do a great deal to increase transparency, but will also aid in the historical preservation of records for years to come and set a powerful example to all levels of government that government must be open and transparent in order to function in the public’s best interests.
A special thanks to Diana Lopez for assembling this list of reasons, and an additional thanks to all of those who participate in FOIA Friday chats. To learn more about FOIA Friday chats, see my blog or our Wiki Page.