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Video Recordings of Public Meetings Still Hit and Miss for Washington Governments

In some cases, televised meetings are the only way for citizens to keep up with the decisions being made.

(TNS) –– Al Yenney wasn’t happy with the way the Pasco City Council was conducting itself during its public meetings.

So, perhaps 15 years ago, he purchased a camcorder and began videotaping the council’s public meetings. The city didn’t stop him, but it didn’t let him plug into power outlets or the mic system either. Either way, the video tapes were good enough to put on cable TV.

For two-plus years, Yenney put two hours of government meetings on cable every week, Wednesdays and Saturdays.

“The best way to take care of problems is to make them public,” said Yenney, whose efforts eventually led the city to begin recording and telecasting its meetings itself. Yenney hung up his cameras and ran for council, serving for 10 years until he was unseated in November.

His legacy continues in the form of cable broadcasts and increasingly, streaming web videos. Viewers won’t find Game of Thrones-style intrigue on government television, but for a segment of the population, it is a lifeline to keeping up with local decision-makers.

“It made a big difference,” Yenney said.

Pasco, together with Richland, leads the region for conducting the public’s meeting in the most public of forums, on television and online.

Video technology is widely available. But it is not widely used in the Mid-Columbia. Kennewick rejected televising its meetings more than a decade ago, saying it would be too costly. Benton and Franklin counties have only teetered into the broadcasting world. School boards tend to follow the leads of their city partners for logistical reasons.

Richland is the undisputed regional leader of putting the minutiae of governing on screens.

City programming went live in 1999, said Mike Charboneau. The annual budget of $230,000 pays for 1.6 full-time employees and is funded by fees associated with its franchise agreement with Charter.

Channel 192 is a 24-hour broadcast featuring city council sessions and meetings of other groups conducting the public’s business, such as the planning commission, arts and recreation commission and hearing examiner, as well as community events such as chamber of commerce programs and candidate forums.

“We basically produce programs for and about the city of Richland and things of wide interest,” Charboneau said.

As it nears its 20th anniversary, Richland’s cable operation is turning its attention to its various web platforms. Charboneau wants its YouTube channel to be a 24-hour program as well since that’s increasingly where people turn for video coverage.

Its internet programs have tallied more than 400,000 views. The Richland CityView channel on YouTube hosts 729 videos and counting.

“The stuff is being looked at and used,” said Charboneau, who said he’s regularly recognized in public.

The latest franchise agreement will give channels to the Richland School District (196) and WSU Tri-Cities (194). There are no immediate plans to broadcast school board sessions, but the channels will add programming as they mature, he said.

Charboneau’s counterpart in Pasco is Jon Funfar.

As the city’s communications program manager, Funfar operates Pasco City Television, aka PSC-TV, or Charter cable channel 191. The city broadcasts city meetings and other events of local interest, such as Pasco Chamber of Commerce forums.

It recently upgraded equipment to give it the ability to send video streams to Pasco’s 24-hour YouTube channel and to Facebook.

“It’s just a very important way for members of the public to see what’s going on in their government,” said Funfar, who notes the council’s Monday night sessions aren’t always convenient for many, especially when topics are discussed at multiple meetings.

Kennewick’s no-broadcast decision dates to 1994, when it entered a cable franchise agreement with Charter Communications. The agreement included a potential grant of $500,000 to televise council meetings within 10 years. In 2004, city leaders opted not to follow through, saying it would have passed costs along to Kennewick cable customers in the form of new taxes.

“While it was free to us, it was not really free,” said City Manager Marie Mosley.

The 25-year contract expires in 2019, meaning new discussions will begin in 2018.

At lease one newcomer to the council plans to make televising meetings a priority.

Steve Lee, who unseated Greg Jones to represent Ward 2, is one of four who will take the oath in January. Lee said getting online needs to be a priority. He said cost shouldn’t be an issue. As it happens, he’s re-locating his cannabis business, Green2Go, into a newly reconstructed building that includes state-of-the art video security.

It shouldn’t cost more than $10,000 to acquire equipment, he said, adding that he’d be happy to help raise private funds if need be.

“It is eminently doable,” he said. “We should be able to watch the most boring planning commission meeting on Instagram.”

©2017 Tri-City Herald (Kennewick, Wash.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.