Making government TV useful

During the marathon debates this spring over Mayor Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake's plans to overcome Baltimore's severe budget crunch, one issue dominated the discussion out of all proportion to its importance to city residents: the fate of the Mayor's Office of Cable and Communications.

That's a branch of the city government that runs TV25, Baltimore's public access cable channel. Ms. Rawlings-Blake had been strongly critical of it when she was City Council president, saying it was little more than a $750,000-a-year public relations department for former Mayor Sheila Dixon. To her credit, Ms. Rawlings-Blake stuck to that tune when an in-house mayoral aggrandizement office might have seemed more appealing to her, and she proposed cutting four positions and $474,000 out of its budget. This seemingly sensible move occasioned no fewer than four City Council hearings and became a bargaining chip in a final budget deal.

Now City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young is pushing again to expand the office's mission, but this time he has the right idea for how to do it. Mr. Young is introducing a resolution at tonight's council meeting calling for a hearing on investigating the feasibility of televising much more municipal business than is currently broadcast. He wants to find out what it would take to show not just City Council meetings but also the Board of Estimates, the Board of Municipal Zoning Appeals and the Board of Liquor License Commissioners.

Those would be key additions to the station's lineup — although Board of Estimates meetings are typically perfunctory, it is where much of the real business of city government is done, and the zoning and liquor boards deal with the issues that tend to stir real neighborhood passions. Mr. Young is asking for an investigation of whether it would make more sense to broadcast the meetings on cable, on the Internet or both. The idea should be the most public access at the least cost.

There's been a welcome trend toward more of the public's business being done in front of the cameras. State Board of Public Works meetings (the rough equivalent of the city's Board of Estimates) are now being webcast. The House of Delegates plans to begin live-streaming its committee meetings, and the Senate is moving toward doing the same for the audio of its meetings. (The new House office building already has cameras in its committee rooms, whereas the Senate building just has microphones.) The technology exists to make these meetings accessible to those who can't attend in person, and we should use it.

What we should be wary of is more government-sponsored original programming, which was a mainstay of the old Mayor's Office of Cable and Communications and still eats up much of the program schedule at many of the public access channels in the suburbs. There's a fine line between informing the public about what the government is doing and propaganda, and in cases where the cable channel is under the direct control of a mayor or county executive, the programming almost inevitably has a political dimension. Such channels aren't likely to show anything critical of the incumbent.

Howard County has established a different model, which is worthy of consideration by other jurisdictions. In 2007, County Executive Ken Ulman transferred responsibility for the government channel to the community college, which has continued to broadcast County Council and other meetings for substantially less money than the county was paying before. The Howard County government has moved to broadcasting the meetings on the Internet and has a sophisticated archiving program that allows viewers to search by date or by subject.

The Howard government channel has a full schedule of programming, but the selection of material is not directly controlled by elected officials, which gives them at least a modicum of independence. And although this hasn't typically been the case at Howard Community College, such an arrangement should give students the opportunity to gain experience by taking over some of the work of filming and editing segments to appear on the air. A spokesman for Mayor Rawlings-Blake says Baltimore is in talks with the city community college to enter a similar arrangement.

Baltimore's continued precarious financial situation may prevent the city from immediately expanding its broadcasts to include the meetings Mr. Young has suggested. But once the city is again in a position to invest more in its cable channel, that's the direction it should go.

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