June 24, 2010

Maryland to webcast more hearings, meetings over Internet

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By Barbara Pash
For Maryland Reporter.com

Treasurer Nancy Kopp sips a cup of coffee. Comptroller Peter Franchot jokes about the American soccer team. Gov. Martin O’Malley congratulates longtime agency workers.

It’s not prime time but for the first time, the Board of Public Works session on Wednesday was broadcast on the web as a test.

Starting with the next public works board meeting July 7, the action, such as it is, can be seen on the Internet on the governor’s official website.

At a news conference, O’Malley and other state leaders announced actions by the General Assembly and the Board of Public Works to make state government more accessible and transparent on the Internet.

O’Malley called the open government actions “the next step” towards that goal, pointing out the many steps the state has already taken, including putting the state’s capital budget online.

“It brings the people closer to the government,” he said. “This is a priority.”

But J.H. Snider, the head of a think-tank advocating greater government openness through information technologies, called the actions “trivial steps” and “an embarrassingly small” improvement over the status quo.

The initiative is a reaction to companion bills by Sen. Nancy King and Del. Heather Mizeur, both Montgomery County Democrats, to require bill hearings and public works board meetings to be webcast, among other items. Mizeur said not all the actions turned out to be feasible.

For example, she said, a provision to allow people to sign up online to testify before General Assembly committees was eventually jettisoned.  “There were procedural issues,” she said.

King called the initiative a “work in progress,” and said that as the actions are implemented, “there will be changes. But we’re moving in a good direction.”

Besides the Board of Public Works sessions, there will be live streaming of standing committee hearings through the General Assembly website at http://mlis.state.md.us. The Senate will broadcast live audio of committee hearings, and the House of Delegates will broadcast live video and audio.

The older Senate hearing rooms are not equipped with the cameras installed in the House when its new hearing rooms were built five years ago. Audio of hearings has only been available in legislative offices.

In addition, the General Assembly will waive the current $800 fee for up-to-the-minute updates on bill status during legislative sessions. Currently, this information is only updated once a day for the general public.

“We will pick up the cost for this initiative,” said Senate President Mike Miller, a Prince George’s-Calvert counties Democrat. The fee generates about $105,000 a year.

In the fiscal note to Mizeur’s bill, a legislative analyst estimated that it would cost at least $195,000 for live video streaming of committee hearings and $147,000 for webcasting the Board of Public Works meetings.

Miller said when he was first elected to the Maryland legislature in 1974, “we celebrated that votes were being recorded in the House and the Senate.” Committee votes were put online last year.

“My sense is we will have a uniform policy on House and Senate committee oral testimony,” Miller said. “The Senate is working on the video aspect.”

Treasurer Nancy Kopp said, “Technology allows us to do now what we couldn’t do” when she joined the legislature in 1975.

Snider, president of iSolon.org whose mission is “democracy for the information age,” said “This is more of a PR attempt than a substantive attempt to increase transparency.”

“It’s embarrassing that even after all these so-called transparency improvements are in place, the great state of Maryland will not even have caught up, in terms of sophistication, to the small, blue-collar town of North Winooski, Vermont,” Snider said. “And in Maryland, even Takoma Park puts the General Assembly to shame.”

He said newer software applications often used for university lectures can easily add closed captioning that would allow users to easily search archived webcasts with transcripts indexed to the video.

Snider said the recorded committee votes now online are in the worst possible format, since they are simply scanned PDFs of voting tallies, rather than electronic records that could be indexed and combined by lawmaker..

Other jurisdictions, such as Washington state, are far ahead of Maryland, Snider said.