Friday, October 18, 2013

Have to Let the Lens into Local Meetings

This column originally appeared in The Sun Chronicle on Friday, October 18, 2013

By Bill Gouveia

When local communities hold their public municipal meetings, they could never get away with excluding print reporters.  The resulting backlash and legal consequences would be swift and severe.

But that same "respect" (perhaps tolerance is a more accurate word) is often not extended to the television media - particularly local cable access.  As powerful as the written word is, we have become a visual society. That means actually being recorded during municipal business is a double-edged sword, giving the public unfettered access but also focusing the spotlight on local officials.

News articles or columns are always presented through the prism of those doing the writing, even in the most objective of circumstances.  Claims of being misquoted or having statements taken out of context can create reasonable doubt in the minds of many.  But actually being seen making the statement is yet another thing entirely.

This manifests itself in many ways on a local basis.  First and foremost, it makes control of local cable access a very important thing.  While many citizens watch and enjoy their community television stations, relatively few understand how they are run or who controls them.  This varies from town to town.

In many communities the local cable operation is controlled by a semi-public non-profit organization appointed in part by selectmen.  These groups come under mostly state regulations, and receive funding from a portion of the cable bills paid to the local cable company.  This usually amounts to several hundred thousands of dollars each year.

The best (or worst) example of the fight for control is Rehoboth. The messy, protracted, legal and highly political battle over control of local cable access there highlights just how powerful and profitable - politically and financially - controlling public access can be.

In Rehoboth the independent operation began acting in what local officials rightfully considered a suspicious and questionable manner.  They wrested control from the group, and in an ongoing legal battle are trying to recover missing equipment and account for questionable spending.

But placing control under selectmen has created different issues.  They have supported the chairman of the Finance Committee when he decided which of his committee's meetings should be televised and which should not.  This form of censorship is both politically expedient and frighteningly effective.

In Wrentham, the local cable access director has claimed the town administrator blocked the televising of a meeting of the Building Commissioner Search Committee. By the time an Open Meeting Law complaint could be filed, the interviews had been conducted and it was pretty much a dead issue.  Those with a cynical view might say -mission accomplished.

In Foxboro, the Advisory Committee is the group responsible for advising the citizens on all matters relative to Town Meeting.  While open to the public and welcoming visitors, they have resisted making it possible for their gatherings to be televised locally.

The philosophy here seems - at least in part - to be that televising the meetings discourages people from serving the community.  Good folks willing to step up and volunteer for this important job might not do so if they know they have to appear on television on a semi-regular basis.  They also might act differently if they know they are on TV.  It is claimed in the end, this hurts the town.

Being on television might be intimidating to many, and may discourage citizens who would otherwise serve from offering their talents.  But that is still not a good enough excuse to prevent people from watching their government in action.

Those who say people can come to the meetings if they really want to be informed are in serious denial.  That is just not a practical answer for most in these busy days. You must make local government as transparent and easy to follow as possible.

The idea the camera brings out the "political" side of officials may also be true - but not relevant. It is a lousy excuse. This type of public service must be actually performed in public.

When newspaper writers first were allowed into all public meetings, there were no doubt those opposed to that also.  But as it was then, sunshine remains the best disinfectant for government - even if it shines through a camera lens.

 Bill Gouveia is a local columnist and can be reached at or followed at @billinsidelook

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