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Friday, October 15, 2010

Democracy in Plainfield: Should it be doctored?

There has been considerable comment by Plainfielders on the length of Council meetings, which are beginning to noticeably affect the speed of the legislative process.

Like it or not, this is how democracy works. Should it be 'doctored'?

Repeated comments by Olddoc (see here and elsewhere on his blog), as well as mentions by other bloggers (Bernice, Maria) and private comments by various and sundry to Council members have underscored the issue.

Council President Annie McWilliams acknowledged the difficulties in a recent email to Courier reporter Mark Spivey (see his story here), but argues that there is important work being done by the Council through its committees that helps clarify and advance the legislative process and which the public deserves to be aware of.

McWilliams' idea of a 'second agenda-setting' meeting each month -- basically for the committee reports and discussion -- would go a long way to ease the situation, I think. Hopefully, the Council can make it through the remainder of the year (and the budget process) and consider a fresh approach when it sets up the 2011 meetings calendar.

That is the kind of 'doctoring' that could do some good.

There are other 'doctoring' proposals that I think are more problematic.

In response to a query by Maria Pellum on the lack of Council minutes, Council President McWilliams outlined a proposal for dealing with the backlog and handling future minutes (see her post here).

Part of her suggestion is a two-step process which would include bare-bones minutes in a speedy manner, with amendments to include Councilors' explanations of their votes to be added subsequently. In the meantime, she suggests that the videos of the meetings are available for the public's review.

Which leads to other 'doctoring' proposals that are also in the air.

In response to my post (see here) on the status of returning Plainfield's cable channel to active programming (after being down since September 7), reader Steve Kilduff wondered -- would be great if the council meeting videos were available in a YouTube type setting where they could be indexed by agenda sequence. Watching 3 to 6 hours of a council meting on PCTV is deadly and not a real option for a working person who has an interest in a part but not all of a meeting.
to which Cable TV Advisory Board chairperson  Lamar Mackson responded --

...[i]n response to Mr. Kilduff's inquiry-the Department of Media has been working on a new website specifically for PCTV 96/34 which will offer programming, Video-on Demand, schedules etc.
In the case of recordings of the overlong Council meetings, it certainly would be good to have an easy way to navigate them.

The problem is that videotapes are just not up to the task.

Editing them down to segments would be very costly and time consuming.

What is needed is a quicker, easier and less expensive method of getting the recorded meetings in the public's hands, and that requires some more up-to-date technological thinking.

There are systems marketed that allow for direct-to-DVD recording of meetings, where the Clerk can insert 'chapter headings' for agenda items, presentations, public comments, etc. and have the finished product available for the public or broadcast on the local access channel THE NEXT DAY.

No consultants to pay to videotape meetings. No minutes to amend for Councilor comments on their votes. No worries about 'editor bias'. No endless hours of tape editing. No weeks delays for broadcast.

Plus the DVDs are available for the public at a small fee, basically the cost of a copy.

Messy as the way democracy works itself out in Plainfield is, the record of it should be full, unedited and permanent.

Thanks to advance in technology it is now easy and cost-effective.

Isn't it time for Plainfield to make the investment?

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Maria Pellum, Plainfield Resident said...


Interesting idea, but I believe Minutes are still to be recorded and entered into an official binder. And not to be disrespectful to the council,or you, but so far legislation has not been passed (that I am aware off) that would allow taped meetings to be the "Minutes". Or has it? I look forward to learn more on this idea along with its much needed research.

Anonymous said...

Please do not "Tell Us" important work is being done, rather let us see it in an improved City.

Anonymous said...

What you say about making the investment in IT makes a lot a sense. However, these endeavors must be funded and sifficient staff available. Having only an IT Director and no support staff puts this request way down on the priority list when it comes to keeping our city functioning.

Dan said...

Maria-- This is not about NOT having minutes recorded in a minute book.

I'm suggesting the minute book just meet the legal standards, and that the complete, unedited meetings be available in a DVD-recorded format -- for reference in the Clerk's office, for broadcast on the cable station, or for purchase (at cost, say $1) by interested parties.

The public record the law requires is the ACTIONS taken by the governing body -- who was present, who moved and seconded, how each person voted.

The rest of what was said -- by the Council, the Admin or the public may be of historical interest, but it is not required -- for an example of acceptable minutes for a NJ municipality, see here --

An investment in a system like this would simplify keeping a VISUAL record of the meeting and the expense of paying a consultant to 'edit' the meetings -- as is done (or not done) now with the videotapes.

Dan said...

@12:34 PM -- I am not arguing for more IT staff; I am not convinced we need it -- despite all the talk.

(There are rumors that there is 'secret' staff assistance for IT already.)

What we need is a clear, thorough IT plan that covers the waterfront -- the city's network(s), email retention, website and cable TV.

To date there is no complete plan. Only with that can a decision be made about staffing needs.

Anonymous said...

The problem with a dvd is . . . who will film the meeting? The $100per hour AV guy they have now?

Anonymous said...

Care to elaborate on this "secret staff" for IT? Are you saying that since the city is getting "secret IT help" that they don't need to do shared services with the BoE? That should save a few jobs in the city.