One local board of selectmen put all other town boards and committees on notice last week that they're all doing the public's business – and the public has a right to watch it on local cable.
As part of a discussion about filling seats on the Newbury Media Committee, Selectwoman Alicia Greco put a figurative stake in the ground for governmental transparency. She said, once the Media Committee seats are filled, the committee's charge should be to make sure all municipal meetings are recorded on video and broadcast.
The idea of government meetings in area cities and towns being broadcast on local cable isn't new, of course, but the practice is spotty and depends on lots of factors: funding for community access cable studios and equipment, training and volunteers willing to run the camera and sound equipment to record countless meetings, and simply the energy and commitment it takes to do this work – for free – for the sake of informing and educating the public.
Newbury – and its sister Triton Regional School District towns of Salisbury and Rowley – might have some advantage over other communities because Triton High School has a cable TV studio and students trained to run it. The problem until recently was committing enough local money to the Triton studio and making sure town buildings had the technical connections for video broadcasting to take place. Newbury Town Meeting voters -- with Greco as one of the key people behind the move -- recently approved a considerable boost in funding for the Triton cable operations, and it might be that new effort that was behind the selectmen's discussion last week.
At the Newbury Town Meeting, Triton Superintendent Brian Forget estimated an $80,000 investment would provide upgrades to equipment that would allow Triton’s media students to broadcast School Committee meetings and events taking place in the gym, auditorium and stadium. In the end, Newbury voters agreed to that amount.
This is a critical time for community access cable stations across the country. The Federal Communications Commission is considering rules changes that would severely cut back how much money cable TV companies have to funnel for community access programming costs.
The new rules would reinterpret the Cable Act, a law that has been untouched since 1984. Since then, cable companies have been able to set their own rate structure in exchange for providing “in kind” donations, or community media resources in the form of public, educational and governmental access channels. If the new rules go into effect, cable companies wouldn't have to provide channel space or revenue for existing community channels.
Newbury's commitment was important not only because it showed local support to have board and committee meetings broadcast, but because it goes against the tide by pushing for more public access to what goes on in town government, not less.
During the discussion about openness in local government, one selectman wondered about the legality of an elected town board directing the actions of other elected town boards. But Chairman JR Colby noted, "We have a policy in place. People should be able to see what their elected boards are doing."
That standard already exists under the state's Public Records Law, which says that all records created by or in the possession of a state or local agency are open to the public and media to review. That means written minutes, tape records and videotapes, as well as documents and correspondence.
Whether Newbury officials follow through with this expectation for all town boards won't be known for a while. But this standard of openness in town government – with the top board making it clear that access to information is paramount – should be emulated by cities and towns throughout the region if it isn't in place today.