Good for open government

Published 5:55 pm Friday, December 26, 2008

By Staff
Anything that promotes open government is a good thing, even if it comes with some unintended baggage.
A N.C. House of Representatives committee recommends the House should broadcast live video on the Internet of its daily sessions and some of the House’s committee meetings. The committee approved the idea last week, with the panel’s findings sent to House Speaker Joe Hackney for his consideration.
It is a recommendation worthy of consideration. At first blush, it is a recommendation worth implementing. There is no doubt that live video on the Internet would make for more open government. There is no doubt that Internet broadcasts of House sessions and committee meetings will result in some legislators, lobbyists and others playing to the cameras.
It will happen. Want proof? Just view the showing of videotaped meetings of the Beaufort County Board of Commissioners on local cable television networks. When those cameras recording those meetings are turned on, the commissioners know it. Knowing their meetings are being viewed, some commissioners make sure to make the most of that air time. In Spotsylvania County, Va., county Supervisor Emmitt Marshall has been playing to the cameras that broadcast live that county’s Board of Supervisors meetings for almost 20 years.
Still, more openness in government trumps people playing to the cameras. Bring cameras to the state House and Senate so their sessions can be show on the Internet. Even better, it would be wonderful, if the money can be found to pay for it, to have a state version of C-SPAN that would provide live broadcasts of House and Senate sessions, not to mention important meetings of their committees.
Doing that would result in a better informed and educated public. Then again, a better informed and educated public could cause some legislators to worry about keeping their seats in the General Assembly. Some legislators may not like the idea of their constituents being able to watch what they are doing, or not doing, in the Legislature.
Rep. Cullie Tarleton, the committee’s chairman and a Democrat from Watauga County, said all the equipment should produce broadcast-quality video so televisions stations can use the footage or be able to broadcast sessions on live television.
Currently, the General Assembly provides only audio feeds from the House and Senate floors and two committee rooms.
Upfront costs for setting up the video coverage would come in around $1 million, with annual operating expenses running hundreds of thousands of dollars each year.
Perhaps adding more openness to state government will help reduce some of the illegal, corrupt activities that have plagued the General Assembly in recent years. Video coverage of House sessions and some House committee meetings won’t eliminate all such activities, but it could help slow them down.
It’s worth the expense. North Carolina legislators cannot afford to let this opportunity for more open government slip away. Taxpayers’ money would be better spent on video coverage of the legislative process than on a teapot museum.
It is time for lights, cameras and action on this recommendation in the General Assembly.