Discussions of government between neighbors and friends often contain exclamations such as, “What are these people thinking?!” City services such as street paving and sidewalk plowing are important to us all, so we tend to care about local budgets and services as much or more than national news.

We follow stories on government process and results that media filters provide — newspapers, Internet blogs, television and radio programs, etc. But often the limitations these media have in page space or airtime leave us feeling we do not have the whole story.

One way to fill information gaps about the decisions elected officials make is to go to the source. These days, video access to government meetings on the Web is no budget-buster.

As city councilors in 2010, we were able to secure funds in this year’s budget for new cameras and servers to stream City Council meetings and archive them for download from the city’s website. We were surprised to learn this equipment can be installed for $5,000 or less. It’s a small item for most municipal budgets, including Portland’s, where a snowstorm can cost taxpayers $2,500 and an election more than $15,000. Augusta and Bangor also have yet to take this step.

But there is no reason to stop there. The city’s access technology can and should go further. Council meetings are one thing, but the same access to committee meetings would be even better.

Next year’s budget should complete the technology initiative by equipping committee rooms with cameras, too.


Committees are where a lot of the hard work gets done — where decision points are laid out in detail and public comment influences tough choices as they are being made. Committee results go to the council, where they may be amended before an up or down vote. But in committee, we see the whole picture and can better decide for ourselves whether the process represents our interests as we each see fit.

In Portland City Hall, there are two rooms (besides the council chambers) where most committee meetings are held. Two webcams can be installed without great expense. Erasing meetings after, say, three years would probably mean one server could handle the storage.

Of course, traditional media, such as the newspaper you are reading, will always be valuable filters of the important issues from the more mundane workings of a local body, such as reporting sidewalk snow plow routes and not a routine business license renewal. In fact, one can imagine news outlets providing the “start” times of quotes or significant discussions within a video file available on the city’s website — much like box scores in sports reporting.

Media filters save constituents a lot of time getting to the heart of a matter — which in turn probably helps keep people interested enough to keep paying attention. And paying attention is what makes democracy work.

But that filter can be all the more valuable with the added means of letting people view the actual process for themselves. And local governments can now provide that access free — without great investments of money or manpower — rather than leave it to news outlets to provide at a cost.

By lowering barriers to information, the Internet enables broader citizen input on problems and solutions.

This is a two-way benefit, because elected officials can be better informed by their constituency’s views. Making “representative” democracy more representative is low-hanging fruit today, and we should pluck it. Perhaps members of the public wanting to provide comment should still be required to attend meetings in person, but taking advantage of technology in this way would only improve community governance.

On any given issue we would not have to take anyone else’s word for it. We could look and see for ourselves. That is what citizen government has always stood for. We don’t have to exclaim, “What are they thinking?!” if we can click to view the decision-making itself.


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