On the Trail
9:26 am
Wed December 11, 2013

Are State And Local Governments Ready For Their Closeup?

Alderman Antonio French is sponsoring legislation to require videotaping or transcribing various meetings and hearings in city government. French is one of several people seeking to use the web to make government more transparent to the public. 

Aldermen Antonio French is seeking to videotape or transcribe various meetings of city of St. Louis boards and committees. That would include Board of Aldermen committees, like the one pictured in this photo.
Aldermen Antonio French is seeking to videotape or transcribe various meetings of city of St. Louis boards and committees. That would include Board of Aldermen committees, like the one pictured in this photo.
Credit (Rachel Lippmann/St. Louis Public Radio) / St. Louis Public Radio)

St. Louis Alderman Antonio French knows something about putting a camera in the face of government. 

Before he was elected to the Board of Aldermen in 2009, French created and managed PubDef.net. It was one of the first websites in Missouri to use video aggressively to chronicle government and politics, which in turn provided a dynamic chronicle of St. Louis politics in the late 2000s.

Now French is trying to parlay that experience into his current line of work. He’s sponsored legislation to require certain city meetings – including those of aldermanic committees, the Board of Estimate and Apportionment and the Board of Public Service – either to be transcribed or videotaped. 

Since stenographers are expensive, French said it's more likely that the meetings would be videotaped. They would then put placed on the city's YouTube channel.

Both French and Andre Holman of STL TV said the city’s communication division wouldn't require any extra staff -- or more money -- to comply.

“I think a lot of people would be amazed that our activities are not recorded,” said French, D-21st Ward, last week during a hearing of the board’s legislation committee. “There are no transcripts of what we do. When we have very important hearings, like today for instance, that provides information that the public would probably want to know, we don’t really have a mechanism for them to get that.”

French cited two advantages: First, people who couldn't attend committee hearings could watch them at their leisure. Second, legislators could use  previous committee testimony during debate over legislation.

Case in point: The board’s Ways and Means Committee hearings were recorded this year. Alderman Terry Kennedy, D-18th Ward and the committee’s chairman, said that those recordings were useful.

“I know this we videoed – or recorded – portions of the budget meetings,” Kennedy said. “And that was helpful, because we had to refer back to them later on. And being able to play it and see what was actually said did make a difference.”   

Mini-wave

French’s bill is part of a small trend across the Show Me State to disseminate and archive governmental action. 

"If it's a public meeting, it needs to be recorded," he said. "It makes no sense that we are a legislative body and there's no transcript of what we do. That's insane." -- Alderman Antonio French

Earlier this year Secretary of State Jason Kander began posting audio files of House and Senate debate to a site known as the Missouri Channel. Not only was this site useful to reporters, but it also allowed the general public to catch up with state government.

More recently, Nodaway County native Duane Lester launched a crowdsourcing push to broadcast General Assembly debates and committee hearings over the internet.  In recent months, Lester – the chief blogger at Missouri Torch – has live-streamed legislative hearings on the controversy involving the Department of Revenue.

(Currently, the House and Senate websites offer streaming audio of floor debate. Those sites do not broadcast committee hearings.)

Lester said in a telephone interview that “people loved it" when he started live-streaming legislative hearings.

“People were tuning in because they were very interested in Jefferson City, but there was no way to hear it or see it,” Lester said. “In these committee meetings, things were being said and decisions were being made, but nobody ever saw them. And saw how many people were tuning in for that, I thought that this is something that should be going on.” 

While Lester said that some legislators told him that the state should be providing such a service, he noted that C-SPAN is funded by cable companies and private donors. 

Duane Lester
Duane Lester
Credit Provided photo

“I didn’t want to saddle Missouri taxpayers with another payment with a service that could possibly be provided by donors,” Lester said. “It was something that I thought should be there. People should be able to see how decisions are made, the logic that goes into legislation and how that legislation is written.

“And really, some of the things that are said in these hearings and on the floor don’t get the coverage they should get,” he added.

In addition to the benefits French cited, Lester said that live-streaming hearings or debate could allow people to react instantly to certain actions.

“While I’m thinking about the drive back to northwest Missouri back from Jefferson City, there’s somebody at home watching this,” he said. “And they’ll catch something that might not be 100 percent factual or logically isn’t sound. And they can e-mail me or e-mail you to say ‘hey, did you hear when he said this?’”

Practical challenges

French and Lester’s efforts, though, have encountered practical questions. 

St. Louis Alderman Antonio French, D-21st Ward, listens in at a recent hearing of the Board of Aldermen's Legislative Committee.
St. Louis Alderman Antonio French, D-21st Ward, listens in at a recent hearing of the Board of Aldermen's Legislative Committee.
Credit (Jason Rosenbaum/St. Louis Public Radio)

Lester estimated that getting the “Missouri Torch Transparency Project” up and running would cost upward of $250,000. So far, he has only about $750 pledged to his crowdsourcing account.

Besides camera, equipment and live-streaming costs, Lester said the project has to pay people to make sure operations are going smoothly.

“When I started this, I thought raising a quarter million dollars would be difficult,” said Lester, adding that the effort was going "worse than he thought."

“It’s an expensive endeavor… I had somebody who told me they could do it for $35,000. I just laughed. I said, ‘Dude, if you can do it for $35,000, you go.’”

French’s bill may stand a better chance. The legislative committee held off on voting so French could change, among other things, the bill’s effective date and specify STL TV’s responsibility.

(Alderman Scott Ogilvie, I-24th Ward, noted that nothing is stopping STL TV from videotaping committee hearings without statutory changes.) 

Alderwoman Donna Baringer, D-16th Ward
Alderwoman Donna Baringer, D-16th Ward
Credit City of St. Louis

Still, some committee members wondered aloud about the proposal's feasibility. Alderwoman Donna Baringer, D-16th Ward, asked French whether STL TV could logistically record every hearing -- especially if multiple hearings are occurring at the same time.

“I’m just saying that I’m sitting here with a bill saying ‘all meetings must be recorded.’ No shades of gray on that one,” Baringer said. “I agree they should be. But they’re not going to always be able to be videotaped. They’re not always going to have to have a staff person available."

For his part, French said that STL TV has enough people on board to comply – without spending more money. If somebody from STL TV wasn’t available, he said, it wouldn’t be that difficult to set up a digital camera on a tripod and hit record.

And Holman added that STLTV has “made a commitment to be able to do this.” 

“That’s why it’s important for us be here at 10 a.m. on Fridays because people need to be able to have access to that information," he said, referring to Board of Aldermen meetings. “We look at the same way as we look at the committee hearings. People who don’t have access, they don’t always have time to come down here.”

French adds that there shouldn’t be any “wiggle room” when it comes to chronicling government.

“If it’s a public meeting, it needs to be recorded,” he said. “It makes no sense that we are a legislative body and there’s no transcript of what we do. That’s insane.”

On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.