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Opinion: Livestreaming City Council Meetings Is Overdue

The Westminster, Md., mayor and all five council members were able to meet — not in the same place, out of respect for limiting personal contact because of the coronavirus, but all together nonetheless.

by Carroll County Times / March 25, 2020
Dr. Jamie Young, a chemistry lecturer at Johns Hopkins University, is recording videos for his lab classes to make sure students can still learn the material even as JHU moves to online courses during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. TNS

(TNS) — Those passing time on Facebook on Monday night might’ve been surprised to stumble across a meeting of Westminster, Md., Mayor and Common Council. The city’s second meeting of the month was streamed live over the social network.

The mayor and all five council members were able to meet — not in the same place, out of respect for limiting personal contact because of the coronavirus, but all together nonetheless. This was accomplished with help from the city’s IT staff as well as a readily available web conferencing service.

So, from, we assume, the privacy of their own homes, Mayor Joe Dominick and councilmembers Tony Chiavacci, Kevin Dayhoff, Ann Thomas Gilbert, Gregory Pecoraro and Ben Yingling conversed, asked questions of one another, discussed the matters on the agenda among themselves and with city staff, including Westminster Police Chief Thomas Ledwell, to talk about an important agenda item.

The circumstance causing the city to conduct business this way is regrettable, but the development of a live-streamed meeting is absolutely welcome. And long overdue.

The coronavirus pandemic and the precautions being taken to slow its spread have shut down schools and nonessential businesses. But local government can’t be shut down. This is a particularly important time for most municipalities as budgets are discussed. And the public has a right to know how its government operates. Government must be conducted in full view of its constituents.

Sunshine Week, a national initiative of the American Society of News Editors to educate the public about the importance of open government and the dangers of excessive and unnecessary secrecy, understandably got lost in the shuffle of the coronavirus last week. But transparency, trust and accountability making government truly open remains a cornerstone of our democracy.

Westminster is the county seat, the largest municipality in Carroll County. It has a big budget and significant issues. But the city’s bi-monthly meeting have never been livestreamed. In fact, most are posted online only as audio recordings, several days later.

Certainly, we wish more people could make it out to the meetings in-person, when they are not restricted by executive order from doing so. But, generally speaking, turnout is light. And it’s hard to imagine too many are going back later to listen in to the meeting. So being able to tune in live online as policy is being discussed would be a tremendous benefit to the citizens of the city.

Technology and space issues at Westminster’s City Hall apparently have hampered the city’s efforts in accomplishing this. But Monday was proof that they don’t have to wait until it can be done as a polished production. Westminster’s meeting doesn’t have to look like the weekly Board of County Commissioners meeting broadcast right from the start.

Far more important is giving as many people as possible access to the meetings. Viewers came and went steadily during the meeting. The audience will only grow as more people learn about the meetings being streamed and get into the habit of checking in, which makes for a more informed citizenry.

We commend Westminster for livestreaming its meetings during the coronavirus crisis. We encourage the other municipalities to do the same. And we hope that an eventual “return to normalcy” will not mean a return to the days when municipal meetings weren’t streamed live for all to see.

©2020 the Carroll County Times (Westminster, Md.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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