AUGUSTA – The Board of Education wants to use the Augusta City Council chambers, but some councilors are reluctant to share their meeting space — or at least their seats.

Board members have asked to use the chambers, in Augusta City Center, for at least some of their meetings.

The school board usually meets in either the Capital Area Technical Center cafeteria or the Cony High School auditorium.

Those spaces lack the high-tech video and audio television production system installed in council chambers about a year ago, and board members said they aren’t especially conducive to interacting with the public in person.

So board members, expressing a desire to have their meetings broadcast on television in a quality sufficient enough so their business can be viewed and understood by more of the public, have asked to move board meetings into council chambers.

“I know, traditionally, council chambers have been council chambers; but in this day and age, I think we have to do things differently,” said Jane Dennison, an at-large school board member. “As elected officials, I think we ought to be able to use the chambers as well. We all have to work together. The quality (of the TV broadcast) from there is so much better, there’s no comparison. Why shouldn’t we be getting a quality production?”

However, some councilors said letting the school board use council chambers would go against years of history and tradition in the city.

“The history of Augusta has been the City Council meets in council chambers and the school board meets at the schools,” Ward 3 Councilor Patrick Paradis said.

Ward 1 Councilor Michael Byron said he’d be open to considering allowing the school board to use council chambers, but only if board members did not sit in councilors’ seats behind the elevated platform from which they preside over meetings. He said school board members sitting in councilors’ seats would be a nonstarter for him.

Asked why it mattered where they sat, Byron pointed to the rows of portraits of Augusta’s mayors that line one wall of the high-ceilinged council chambers.

“History,” Byron said. “I’m a traditionalist. This is a special place, for a long line of councilors dating back hundreds of years. I have no problem if they want to sit in here on the floor (in chairs), but not here.”

Dennison said the idea of making board members sit in chairs on the floor of council chambers, not at the podium, is ridiculous.

Former Councilor Mary Mayo-Wescott urged councilors to resist the effort to have school board meetings in council chambers, chambers she described as sacred.

Other councilors, and Mayor William Stokes, himself a former school board member, are more open to the idea of sharing their meeting space.

“I don’t own this seat,” Stokes said from the podium recently. “The school board was elected just like we were. I watched the school board meeting on television the other night. The quality was not good at all. You could barely hear what was being said. We’d be quite annoyed if we had that quality.”

First-class broadcasting

Paradis said until extensive renovations to council chambers were made about a year ago and the production studio for local broadcasts was moved from Capital Area Technical Center to Augusta City Center, it was council meetings that suffered from poor broadcast quality.

Last year an approximately $100,000 project at City Center brought remote-controlled cameras, improved audio and video systems, a dedicated laptop, a document camera, flat-screen televisions for presentations and the ability to stream council meetings on the Internet.

The city awarded a five-year contract to Waterville-based Digital Spirit Media, paying the firm about $115,000 a year to produce and record council meetings, school board meetings and other public events and programs in the city. Their work is broadcast on CTV 7, and in the case of council meetings, also streamed on the Internet, both live and available for later viewing.

“Right now we’re running first-class City Council meetings, with a great picture and great audio going out to the community, which is fantastic,” said At-Large Councilor David Rollins. “Our elected peers on the school board don’t enjoy the same opportunity. I think we’re treating them like second-class citizens. Right now what we’re doing is not acceptable. If you sit and watch (school board meetings on TV), it’s pretty embarrassing the city of Augusta does it.”

City Manager William Bridgeo said the contract with Digital Spirit Media is paid for with franchise fees Time Warner Cable pays to the city. Time Warner pays the city 5 percent of every Augusta residents’ cable bill, which he said brings in $150,000 to $180,000 per year in revenue. Franchise fee revenue, which isn’t used to pay Digital Spirit Media, goes into the city’s general fund.

Leif Dahlin, community services director, said not only is the quality of the broadcast poorer at the school sites, it also takes dramatically more time for staff members of Digital Spirit Media to produce it because they must run cable and set up a temporary production studio — recently it was set up in the kitchen — at the schools each time.

“They put over 30 hours into (a March 14) school board meeting, because they have to literally move a studio from council chambers to Capital Area Technical Center,” Dahlin said. “That’s versus five hours if it were in council chambers.”

Less time spent on school board meetings would mean the Digital Spirit Media staff would have more time to record and show other events, such as school activities, performances and events, Dahlin, Dennison and Superintendent Cornelia Brown said.

Councilors last week asked the cable TV committee to look into the issue and make a recommendation. The committee is scheduled to meet Tuesday.

Councilor Cecil Munson, the council representative on the cable TV committee, apparently had a change of heart on the issue over the last week.

More than a week ago, Munson spoke against the school board using council chambers, expressing concern that the chambers could become a production studio. Instead, he suggested looking at setting up another room at City Center, such as the lecture hall where the Planning Board and other groups meet, so the school board and other groups could meet there and have their meetings broadcast.

However, at this week’s council meeting, Munson said he’d spoken with many people on the subject and had reviewed past council goals about improving communications with the public, and he would now recommend council chambers not only be opened up for use by the school board, but also the Planning Board and other groups.

Munson said he heard from constituents who told him “the taxpayers own city hall, not city councilors.”

“There should be no turf issues,” he said. “They told me those seats belong to the people. You’re not the kings, not the elite.”

So Munson said he’ll recommend the chambers be opened up for meetings other than those of councilors, “because it will open it up to the light, because citizens should be able to see.”

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

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