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After citizen complaints, Baltimore County agrees to air its meetings live

The Baltimore County Council plans to start live-streaming its meetings — years after other county governments adopted the practice.

The decision to broadcast meetings live online comes amid complaints from county residents, who feel shut out of the government decision-making process when they can't trek to Towson to watch meetings in person.

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"We just want as much transparency as we can get," said Council Chairwoman Vicki Almond, a Reisterstown Democrat. "I think it will give people a better idea of what we actually do and what our process is." She said details of the launch still must be nailed down, but she expects the live broadcasts to begin by the end of the year.

Currently, the council's evening meetings are recorded and aired on cable on a delayed basis. The council's daytime work sessions, where members discuss bills and hear public testimony, are not recorded at all.

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Towson resident Beth Gibbs, who is active in neighborhood and animal welfare issues, said the lack of live meeting broadcasts is "one tangible manifestation of Baltimore County government's predilection to avoid transparency whenever, wherever and however they can."

Gibbs said many members of the Reform Baltimore County Animal Services group can't make it to council meetings and would like to watch online or on TV. The work sessions are especially hard for people to attend because they're usually held at 2 p.m. on Tuesdays, when most people are at work.

"It's 2016," she said. "Technology should allow for greater transparency."

A Baltimore Sun survey of area governments found that Baltimore County is the last to offer live broadcasts of its meetings.

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Baltimore City and Anne Arundel, Carroll and Howard counties broadcast their meetings live on both cable TV and the internet. Meeting videos are archived online.

Harford County's council meetings are streamed live online, but the cable broadcast is delayed.

Baltimore County has been offering only the delayed cable TV videos of County Council meetings for about 15 years, said Thomas Peddicord, the council's legal counsel and secretary. Until recently, there's never been a push to change it.

"I think the council, they just weren't concerned about it," Peddicord said. "This group, with some of the new people this term and the last term, began to want to move it along."

A remote camera was recently installed in the council's chambers that will allow for live broadcasts.

The meeting room that the council uses for its work sessions is small and doesn't work well for videotaping, so the council may move its work sessions to the main council chambers to allow them to be live-streamed, too, Peddicord said.

Council members are expected to discuss the logistics of live-streaming their meetings next month, after finishing comprehensive rezoning decisions. In September, the council resumes a full schedule of two meetings and two work sessions per month, after a lighter summer schedule.

Baltimore County Councilman Julian Jones is glad that the county is moving forward on the broadcasts.

"Comcast records each and every one of the council meetings; however, it's hard to know when exactly people can see them," said Jones, a Woodstock Democrat who was elected in 2014. "It just stands to reason that we would have these things listed on the website. ... It doesn't seem too much to ask for in 2016."

Jones has been among the council members nudging the county on the issue. He's influenced, in part, by his experience in Anne Arundel County, where he recently retired from his day job as a high-ranking firefighter. Anne Arundel has a year's worth of County Council meeting videos posted online.

"The real benefit is for people to be able to go online and see their government work at a time and place that's convenient for them," Jones said.

County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, a Democrat who served on the council for 16 years, declined to discuss the broadcast of council meetings, saying through a spokeswoman that those decisions are up to the council.

Dundalk resident Scott Collier said it would be helpful for county residents to see their council members in action, especially at the work sessions where he says members sometimes are "rolling their eyes about things, looking away, not paying attention to the person speaking."

Collier knows about the power of video, having posted videos of community events and meetings on his DundalkTV channel on YouTube for about five years. He thinks making it easier to watch county government would get more people involved.

"I think more people would be interested in what's going on because it would be easier to get informed," Collier said.

Donna Metlin, president of the Colgate Improvement Association in Dundalk, said it sometimes takes four or five days for video from a Monday night council meeting to be aired on cable TV. Even then, she said meetings are rarely aired at the time listed on the TV schedule.

"It isn't a successful way of informing the public," said Metlin.

Having video of public meetings that's easy to find and view is important to ensuring that government bodies are transparent, said Damon Effingham, policy manager for Common Cause Maryland.

In a county that's as large as Baltimore County, the ability for residents to watch meetings online is all the more important, Effingham said.

Baltimore County has about 830,000 residents, a larger population than four states. The county covers 682 square miles, with several communities more than 20 miles away from the county seat in Towson where meetings are held.

"There's really no reason not to provide it, other than not wanting to be transparent or getting stuck in, 'This has worked so long, so why change it?'" Effingham said.

And with more families dropping their cable TV plans and fewer reporters providing comprehensive coverage of local government, online access to meetings is a key way for residents to keep tabs on their elected officials, Effingham said.

While providing online streaming and archives of meetings is "more expensive than pulling out your iPhone," governments like Baltimore County can find cost-effective ways to record meetings, Effingham said.

Generally, broadcasts of government meetings are funded by the cable companies that operate in each jurisdiction. As part of the franchise agreement that allows them to do business in a county, the cable company must provide a certain number of channels for government and public access programming, as well as a stream of money to help pay for it.

The money from the cable companies is known as "PEG," which stands for public, educational and governmental access. In addition to paying for coverage of government meetings, the PEG money can be used to pay for studios and equipment for other shows that air on local cable, such as programs filmed by local school systems, community-based shows and public affairs programs.

There's no uniform standard for how much cable companies pay in fees for PEG programming or how the money is used, said Joy Sims, senior director of communications for the National Cable & Telecommunications Association. It's up to each local government to decide the details of contracts with cable companies.

While government meetings are not aired live on Baltimore County's cable channel 25, the channel airs county-created programs on the arts, local businesses, police, senior issues and current events. The council meetings are aired throughout the week at different times.

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In Carroll County, the county and its eight municipalities pooled their PEG money to form the nonprofit Carroll County Community Media Center.

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All of the Carroll County Commissioners meetings are filmed by the media center group and aired live on cable TV and online. The center rotates among Carroll's eight cities and towns, recording each jurisdiction's council meeting once per quarter.

The Harford Cable Network broadcasts County Council meetings, Board of Appeals meetings and budget hearings. Meetings of the Development Advisory Committee, which reviews development proposals, will be broadcast once cameras are installed in the committee's new meeting room, said Cindy Mumby, a spokeswoman for County Executive Barry Glassman.

"We really are trying to make government more transparent and to engage citizens," she said.

Mumby said technology has made it easier to broadcast government meetings.

"It's certainly not as difficult as it once was to provide this," she said.

While other jurisdictions offer more meeting coverage than Baltimore County, they aren't without complaints.

In Baltimore City, CharmTV broadcasts all meetings of the City Council and many council committees, as well as hearings of the Liquor Board, Board of Estimates and the Municipal Zoning Appeals Board.

But manpower issues mean that not all meetings are broadcast in their entirety, said Lester Davis, spokesman for City Council President Bernard "Jack" Young. When meetings are held after hours, the high cost of paying CharmTV staff means that sometimes only the first couple hours are broadcast, frustrating viewers at home.

At the state level, some lawmakers have been frustrated that the Maryland General Assembly doesn't offer video of floor sessions of the House of Delegates and the state Senate.

Currently, committee hearings are live streamed. The General Assembly only provides a live audio stream of floor sessions –no video.

A bipartisan push from some lawmakers to require online video streaming of floor sessions went nowhere this year. Nonpartisan legislative analysts estimate it would cost $1.2 million in the first year and at least $400,000 per year after that to live stream video from floor sessions.

Baltimore Sun reporter Alison Knezevich contributed to this article.

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