Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Video Request of Oconee County Commissioners

See 'em Live or On Demand

On May 6, four citizens, including me, used the citizen comments section of the Oconee County Board of Commissioners meeting to ask the Board to begin exploring ways to make a videocast of its meetings available to citizens.

I observed that citizens often are too busy to attend meetings, and the Board should do what neighboring counties are doing already by telecasting its meetings and making them available on the web. I also said that a video of meetings would provide everyone with a complete record of BOC activities.

Russ Page, who is active in farmland protection and has been a frequent attender of BOC meetings, reminded the Board that it has rejected citizen requests in the past for televised coverage, but that the web has created new, less expensive options.

Charlie Baugh, another frequent visit to the BOC chambers who operates a listserv for people in the County interested in what happens there, asked the Board to immediately instruct County Administrator Alan Theriault and County Attorney Daniel Haygood to bring back to the Commission a report on the options available for telecasting, webcasting and providing video on demand of BOC meetings.

Finally, Tony Glenn, active in preservation of the rural nature of the southern part of the county, told the BOC that we are prepared to start creating and distributing video of the BOC meetings on our own if it did not take action.

As is usually the case when citizens speak at BOC meetings, not a single commissioner responded.

Chairman Melvin Davis immediately entertained and obtained a motion to adjourn, and the group ended its meeting.

The Oconee Enterprise, which is the designated legal organ of the county (meaning it is where the County publishes its legal notices) and which usually acts as if it were the official mouthpiece of the county, did not include any mention of our presentation it its account of the meeting.

The Oconee Leader ignored the meeting entirely, which is its habit.

Athens Banner-Herald reporter Adam Thompson included an account of our presentation in his blog, which the paper reprinted in its May 11 edition. Thompson correctly pointed out that the county has rejected the request for video in the past on the grounds it is too expensive, though some of the cost could be born by cable company franchise fees.

Thompson also linked in his blog to a story in the Banner-Herald in October of 2004 in which Chairman Davis was quoted as saying he felt television coverage of meetings would be confusing to citizens.

Here’s the full quote:

"You may just be catching parts of the meetings and not know all the details and get really upset about something. Or you may be pleasantly pleased with something going on, but you don’t know all the details."

Thompson was dismissive of our efforts. His blog had this headline:

"The Mel-volution will (probably not) be televised."

Following the May 6 meeting, I wrote to all five of the commissioners asking them to put our request that they ask Theriault and Haygood to explore the options for videocasting on the May 27 agenda.

Only Commissioner Jim Luke responded. He said he had no position on the issue at present, but he was worried about commissioners "playing to the camera," making meetings too long. He said he will "support some study of the process beginning soon, but not as an agenda item next month."

Luke said the BOC is busy with too many other things at present, and "I don’t see this as an election issue." He copied his message to Baugh, Page, Glenn, the other commissioners and Thompson at the Banner-Herald.

Charlie Baugh also wrote to the five commissioners. Commissioner Chuck Horton sent back a brief message to Baugh saying he has "no problem" with the idea of videocasting BOC meetings.

In my view, the county ought to do everything it can to help citizens get involved and become informed about what it does.

I also think the argument about the need for a full record of BOC meetings is compelling.

At present, as a matter of policy, the minutes of the meetings are very limited.

On Feb. 26, 2008, for example, I used the "Statement and Remarks from Citizens" section of the meeting to ask some questions.

The exchange took just a few seconds more than six minutes, and during it Chairman Davis and Administrator Theriault contradicted information that County Attorney Haygood had given to the Georgia Attorney General’s office in response to a complaint I filed against the county.

In the official minutes of the meeting, approved by the Board, this exchange is reported as follows:

"Lee Becker asked questions about the bids for engineering and design support services for the Rocky Branch Water Reclamation Facility Upgrade Project."

At the March 25, 2008, BOC meeting, the commissioners, led by Commissioner Margaret Hale, questioned Utility Department Director John Hatcher regarding the amount of money Hatcher wanted to spend on consulting work by Precision Planning Inc. for the Rocky Branch sewage plant upgrade.

The exchange took just a few seconds less than eight minutes. Chairman Davis agreed at the end of the exchange to modify the original request Hatcher made of the Board.

The minutes make no reference to this exchange at all and do not reflect the change Hale was able to get Davis to agree to at the meeting.

A third example also is interesting.

On April 8, the BOC voted 3-2 to allow the sale of beer and wine in county restaurants. The controversial decision had been under discussion since the summer of 2007. None of the commissioners said a word to explain her or his vote.

Had they done so, however, it is doubtful the minutes would have reflected the comments.

Baugh, Glenn, Page and I decided in advance to make a video of that meeting. It, at least, is one you can view in your home.

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