Opinion: Recording legislative proceedings gives citizens more access to government

By League of Women Voters of Maine

On Thursday, the Bangor Daily News reported on an effort to halt the recording and archiving of legislative meetings and committee sessions. These are open and public meetings that are streamed live over the internet so that citizens who cannot attend in person can listen in to committees’ meetings, public hearings, work sessions, and legislative floor debates. The meetings are also recorded, archived, and made available to anyone who requests them.

Sen. Garrett Mason of Lisbon wants to change this. Apparently okay with live streaming, Sen. Mason objects to these discussions being recorded and archived for posterity. While some of us in the League of Women Voters were surprised to learn of this practice, the League objects to abolishing it. As citizens, we would be happy to rely on these recordings when we cannot attend a legislative hearing or work sessions in person. This access could be very helpful to our work and rests on an essential principle of our right to know how our government operates. We support keeping these audio records but object to keeping them secret.

These are public meetings – open to the public and available live online. Recording only makes them more available to the public, preserves the proceedings verbatim instead of through hearsay, and makes our government functions more transparent and accessible to citizens. Other parts of these proceedings are already archived and available – most particularly, written testimony before committee hearings and the voting record of our elected official. Participating in government is a public act, and archiving the record honors this citizen action. Recording these public conversations only serves to give citizens a more complete view of how our government is functioning.

But who knew? Apparently, the existence of these audio archives was a well-kept secret, known only to State House insiders. LWVME Board Member John Brautigam says,

I find it kind of disturbing that they do this without notifying the public. Not because of privacy, but because the existence of these recordings should not be concealed. The argument that they are available “upon request” is not enough, in my opinion. That means lobbyists who know how to get them will have access, but the general public generally will not.

Sen. Mason expresses concern that citizens participating in a public hearing may not know they’re being recorded. But they may also not know that their written testimony will be saved and made available online. Journalists and news outlets are often there with cameras, and the clips they pull for publication are then broadcast and preserved in perpetuity. If there is truly a concern that people don’t know about the recordings, then it should be addressed with signage or an announcement at the start of the proceeding. It could also be noted on the agenda for the meeting or hearing.

We (LWVME) take the position that the practice should continue, announcements should be made at the start of each committee meeting that an audio archive is being kept, and the existence of these recordings should be posted on the committee web sites and otherwise made broadly accessible. Public testimony is public testimony – not a private chat among confidants. If the issue is that members of the public don’t know, then it is the responsibility of the government and staff to make the information known.

Further, we already have laws that allow people to be filmed and photographed in public. And, we have security cameras in public places all around the country. Why should the workings of our legislature be subject to less scrutiny than we are in public? How perverse would it be to have increasing surveillance all around us of private citizens engaged in ordinary activities, but turn the democratic policy-making process into something private?

 

 

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