Under Texas state open meetings laws, most meetings of governmental bodies such as school boards and city councils must be open to the public. All must be announced at least 72 hours in advance, with larger cities and school boards such as LISD and the City of Lewisville subject to additional requirements to post agendas and meeting notices on their websites also.
By state law, any citizen is allowed to attend a public meeting and make their own video or audio recording, but as far as we could tell, there is no legal requirement for a governmental body to video record meetings.
But in this day of easily available and inexpensive technology for recording, and the ability to put videos on the Internet within minutes, it is barely excusable for a governmental body not to take this step and open up the process for its citizens.
Dampening the Deliberative Process One of the more valid arguments against recording meetings is that it disrupts the deliberative process by raising the guard of those being taped. If an elected official has questions or concerns about an item, or simply needs more explanation from staff, they might be less likely to ask a question that might make them look silly if it were replayed to a wider constituency.
Politically, it looks better for a politician to be dead certain and unequivocal on issues, but in terms of making good policy, it pays to have a bit of humility and be willing to ask questions and float ideas.
Playing to the Camera? Another one of the common objections to adding video to proceedings is that elected office-holders and citizens will use the open forum or their alloted time for political grandstanding or "face time" with the camera.
This may be true to an extent, but there is a difference between news cameras, and the cameras in a governmental meeting for a body the size of LISD. These video recordings will by nature have a limited audience of those with more than just a casual interest. And truthfully, there is nothing that prevents any sort of political grandstanding or showmanship today.
One need only watch C Span to see the kind of attention-getting stunts and gimmicks that politicians are capable of.
On a local level, I have only witnessed a couple of meetings where speakers have become animated, agitated, or otherwise dramatic. Here's one. For what it's worth, I can get fairly agitated at times too. Here's one where I wish I hadn't been quite as angry, but I can assure you that would have been the case with or without cameras.
Clips Out of Context One concern that strengthens the case for an official recording is the fear that a fragment of a conversation or statement given by an elected official might be somehow edited so as to obscure the context or intentionally mislead the viewer.
When the only recording of an official meeting is taken by a private citizen or member of the media, it can be nearly impossible for someone to refute a misleading video segment.
When the government body maintains their own official and high-quality copy of proceedings, the record can always be corrected, and this discourages any misleading uses.
It is not always for sinister purposes that a citizen or member of the media would edit video though. When it really comes down to it, most of these meetings are just plain boring and slow-moving. In a one hour meeting, you might have 5 minutes of material worth presenting to a viewer who is already suffering from information overload. What would be sinister is to cut video in such a way that you misrepresent what the person is saying. For instance if the person is quoting someone else, not using their own words, and the clip is cut to make it seem like it's their opinion.
Improving Access The biggest and most compelling argument for video recording of public meetings is the ability to make them more accessible to the general public. Working people with children and commitments and dinner to cook are not always able to get out to attend a meeting in person. The elderly and shut-ins may not be able to drive to a meeting. Internet video can be watched at one's convenience. Rebroadcast on local access television stations may not be as convenient, but makes a meeting available to those without internet access.
Informed Voters Good hyper-local coverage of school board and city council proceedings is unfortunately rare in a consolidated media market like the Dallas-Fort Worth CMSA. Because of downsizing and consolidation in media, our newspapers and local broadcast media tend not to be able to devote any depth of coverage to local issues. Even those controversial subjects that do get some ink rarely have enough depth to adequately portray the views of the elected officials making the decisions.
When citizens are able to attend a meeting or watch a video, they can gain vital clues as to the philosophy and motivations of their elected officials. This is the kind of thing that one cannot get from reading a campaign postcard. When voters are able to watch proceedings and make their own judgments on an item, then see how the members of the body vote, they can make more informed decisions at the polls.
Big Brother is Watching And last but not least, having cameras in place and policy of posting the videos helps keep our elected officials on their best behavior. Knowing they are on video may serve to prevent blatant violations that the body might otherwise be tempted to get away with. After all, you never know who may be watching; it could be an attorney general or that watchdog citizen.
We support video At WhosPlayin, we support open government that exceeds the requirements of the letter of the law. On the balance, we think that any drawbacks of recording public meetings are far outweighed by the benefits.
We urge our City Council and School Board, and their respective staffs to work at ways to get video of all proceedings, erring on the side of openness and making adjustments later if needed to address specific problems.
We also think there should be some tweaks to open meetings laws to make it easier for elected officials to communicate with each other and constituents via blogs, email, and social networking sites without running afoul of open meetings laws. We'll have more on that later.
I'll leave you with this 8 minute video of the Lewisville ISD Board discussing videotaping their meetings: