TV time for city council 

Orlando city government slowly continues to move forward with plans to begin broadcasting council meetings on Orange TV, probably next spring.

A seven-member technical advisory committee will meet Nov. 7 to begin hashing out the city's strategy. That committee will oversee the bidding process for equipment, the remodeling of City Hall to accommodate a control room and the hiring of a full-time producer.

The city also anticipates negotiating in January with cable giant Time Warner Communications for a city-run cable-access channel to begin operating when the current cable franchise agreement runs out in 2005. The city's channel will be similar to the county-run channel, Orange TV, which broadcasts school board and county meetings as well as the Florida Legislature through two Central Florida cable providers.

After years of wrangling, the Orlando City Council voted last month to authorize $300,000 as start-up money for televised meetings.

Now council members are fighting what District 1 Commissioner Don Ammerman called a "go slow" mentality in Mayor Glenda Hood's administration.

The feeling around City Hall has been that Hood, who some accuse of growing increasingly autocratic in her third term, wouldn't permit council meetings on television because she would be unable to control her image.

Observers were concerned that the city would stall on broadcasting council meetings even though commissioners allocated the money. Many groaned in frustration when city spokeswoman Susan Blexrud told commissioners that Council Chambers wouldn't be ready for broadcast until the spring of 2002.

"Hopefully it will be sooner [rather] than later," says Ammerman, one of the most vocal proponents of Council TV. "The direction will come from council. We'll ask for the necessary updates."

The Orlando Sentinel seemed to back Hood when its editorial page accused broadcast proponents of posturing for next spring's elections.

Council TV probably won't help any challengers to the sitting council members. But it likely could work against several incumbent commissioners who often fail to compose themselves during heated arguments.

"Television can work for or against you," says District 3 Commissioner Vicki Vargo. "It depends on how you perform on city council. A picture is worth a thousand words. Television is worth a lot if it provides a picture of how the council is actually working, rather than relying on the print media. It's a double-edged sword for commissioners."

Another issue is whether city officials will try to prevent citizens from speaking during the council's open-forum session, titled on the council's regular agenda as "General Appearances." Unlike the Orange County Commission and school board, the Orlando City Council concludes its sessions by allowing citizens to speak on any subject they wish for up to five minutes. Some observers anticipate Hood's administration will try to block that section from broadcast because residents often make inflammatory remarks.

Ammerman, however, said council coverage should be "gavel to gavel," as it is elsewhere.

The broadcast committee seems to have addressed the issue by asking Orange TV for five hours of air time, which would be enough time, in most cases, to broadcast the General Appearances portion of council meetings.

Orlando is one of the few major cities in Florida that still doesn't broadcast its meetings. Cities such as Jacksonville, which has televised council meetings since 1968, often run their second- and third-tier meetings on television so citizens can follow an issue from start to finish Ð without leaving their homes.

Orlando, while still far behind, will take a big step by simply putting its council on television.

"It's time to open the windows and raise the blinds," Ammerman says. "Don't you think?"


More by William Dean Hinton


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