July 28, 2010

Analysis: Open mike: Live from Annapolis, its the Board of Public Works

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State government really has reached a new level of transparency with the live webcasting of video from the Board of Public Works, which started in June.

The participants and attendees clearly need to get used to the presence of robotic cameras and microphones, which follow the sound of speech. They picked up a number of personal conversations on today’s webcast.

The camera was turned on at 10 a.m. when the meeting was supposed to start – but never does – and it caught people milling around and engaging in the usual chit-chat as they waited for the board members to arrive.

Joe Shapiro, communications director for Comptroller Peter Franchot, was talking to Associated Press correspondent Brian Witte. The nearby mikes picked up snippets of their conversation about Joe’s trip to Bermuda, and Brian’s visit to the Cayman Islands. And then Joe asks about the poker game, and so on. Someone in the room gets up and reminds the crowd that everything is being recorded.

The mikes unfortunately did not pick up the private conversation behind the board table between Gov. Martin O’Malley and Franchot, who could be seen but not heard.

When the meeting actually got underway, it was difficult to hear the governor despite the room microphone, and I had to turn up the volume on my computer speakers.

Because there is only one camera, which directs itself by sound, you can only see the person speaking. You couldn’t see, for instance, the slide show that accompanied testimony about the huge State Center project in Baltimore.

Dave Schwartz, the state director of Americans for Prosperity – initial organizers of the tea parties – took advantage of the open mike and open meeting to ask O’Malley what he was going to do about the fact that the state was not going to get the expected $389 million in Medicaid funding from the federal government, thus putting the budget in deficit. O’Malley explained that the state would dip into the reserves for the local income tax payments, the backup plan the legislature provided.

So you’re going to “raid” the local income tax fund? Schwartz asks, clearly trying to put the governor on the spot, as AFP folks like to do. O’Malley hesitates, explains again, and then reminds Schwartz that he wasn’t on the agenda, but thanks him for coming – the way you thank an unwelcome door-to-door solicitor.

At some point in the proceeding, Franchot refers to “all you thousands of people watching over the Internet,” but according to the little ticker at the bottom of the frame, the number of “viewers” ranged from 25 to 42 – fewer people than were actually in the room.

Unfortunately, the video webcasts are not yet archived, but audio and transcripts of previous meetings are available. However, not on the same day.

–Len Lazarick