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Editorial: Looking in on government

As TV programs go, the viewership of most municipal meetings is marginal at best. But community leaders serve their constituents by helping to make these proceedings available to those who want to peek in. And they do not serve the public interest if they stand in the way of that access.

We find it strange that two city boards in Easthampton have voted not to allow use of video cameras that are part of a sophisticated system put in place so that Easthampton Community Access Television can make their work available online. Both the Community Preservation Act Committee and the Easthampton Housing Partnership voted this fall against letting their meetings be recorded. The CPA committee said no in September and the housing group turned its back on the public last month, despite an Oct. 24 memo from Mayor Michael Tautznik to all boards and committees urging them to activate the camera system during meetings.

The Easthampton City Council is scheduled to take up this issue Dec. 19. You’ll be able to see those proceedings live at the Municipal Building, or later on the ECAT website, for that panel’s work is presented freely for public consumption. That should be the standard for all Easthampton governance.

Regrettably, too few people run for public office these days. And too few citizens monitor the work of local governmental bodies. Stifling access to what transpires, as is the case now with the CPA and housing boards, can only further dampen public interest and participation.

An official who sits on both of the city’s nay-saying boards, Robert Harrison, says he’ll end his public service if recording is made mandatory. He even threatened to halt a recent meeting if the video apparatus — paid for by fees charged cable TV subscribers — was turned on.

What is going on here?

The state’s Open Meeting Law requires public boards to permit videotaping, for live or later viewing. While it doesn’t require boards to record their proceedings, that’s not grounds for these boards to become shrinking violets. Harrison and others opposed to using the video system say comments by volunteer board members could be taken out of context and in some way, they seem to imply, be used against them.

No one expects city boards and commissions to be theaters of great oratory. Nor do citizens expect speedy agendas or fancy production values.

Government, up close, is just people working out common problems. While it’s true that too few members of the public show up to follow what’s going in, that doesn’t mean boards have the right to close doors to video access.

In time, just about every municipal body comes forward seeking taxpayer support. They need to earn public trust. We question how these Easthampton panels achieve that by voting to restrict public access to their work through remote means like video recording.

Not surprisingly, most communities in the state are booting up video systems for their public meetings with no quibbles. People elected or appointed to serve on these panels know — or should know — that they serve the public and for that reason must allow their work to be viewed by the public. Members of Easthampton’s City Council and School Committee understand this. Videotaping is standard throughout the Valley. It doesn’t damage or degrade volunteer governance, it advances it.

If it takes an act of the City Council to compel video access to Easthampton government, we’re for it. It isn’t a game of “gotcha.” This isn’t Big Brother wanting to look in on committee members. It is their own neighbors, children, parents, friends and the plain old taxpayer, whose understanding of modern governing — and consent on tough decisions — is the bedrock of municipal success.

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