Must-see TV

Last week, Commissioners Don Ammerman and Ernest Page were waiting to see if there would be money in this year's budget for technicians and equipment so the Orlando City Council finally could begin broadcasting its meetings.

Asked if funding should be in the budget, Page responded, "As far as I'm concerned, it better be." Ammerman was equally insistent. "Don't tell me no" was his message to Mayor Glenda Hood's administration.

At this week's budget workshop, Hood and her staff weren't saying no. But Hood wasn't making it easy on the two commissioners either. She quarreled with Page over how long they have waited for Council TV. "I think this is serious," Page said. "We've been waiting two-and-a-half years." When Hood said that she hadn't been waiting that long, Page responded, "Well I have."

Ammerman was likewise filled with vinegar. After Hood's right-hand man and Chief Administrative Officer Richard Levey continually contradicted Ammerman, the commissioner responded, "You're raising issues why we can't do this. I'm not here to discuss why we can't. I'm here to discuss moving forward."

It was a good moment for city politics -- commissioners exerting themselves on a board that has been criticized for being too docile. Indeed, it was a moment that would have made for good television had the council been equipped for broadcast.

What's better is that Ammerman and Page won the issue. Money will be allocated for Council TV by Sept. 10, the first of the city's budget meetings, according to Rebecca Ares, the city's management and budget director. "We'll probably report something back formally `to commissioners` before then," she said.

Though the money will be budgeted this year, don't look for commissioners on television any earlier than April 2002. The city still must put out bids on recording and camera equipment and hire a full-time technician. The early plan calls for Monday-afternoon council meetings to air on Time Warner Communications' county government access channel, Orange TV.

Steve Triggs, who heads the county communications staff, told Orlando Weekly the station would gladly broadcast Orlando meetings if the city can provide a feed to the Orlando Science Center, where Orange TV headquarters are located. "If we have to use any of our people, I'd expect them to pay for that," he said.

At a July 23 workshop, the council discussed obtaining a city-run channel. City officials expect to begin negotiations with Time Warner next year.

Which is long past due. Orlando is the last major city in Florida that still doesn't broadcast its meetings to the public -- not counting Hialeah. But Hialeah, a Miami suburb slightly more populated than Orlando, has been busy with other issues. Its mayor was indicted in 1990 on charges that he accepted money and favors from developers. He was convicted by a federal jury on six of eight charges, but an appellate judge overturned the ruling and the charges were dropped in 1996. That mayor, Raul Martinez, is still in office. (Imagine how much fun those meetings would have been to watch.)

Orlando tried broadcasting council meetings for a while back in the 1980s. But few people watched and city leaders cut funding for the channel.

Now such cities as Miami, Tampa, St. Petersburg, Clearwater and Tallahassee all have passed Orlando in the teledemocracy arena, having grown so sophisticated that they own their own stations. "We're light years behind," Page said recently. Those cities broadcast mayoral and commissioner shows as well as meetings of major decision-making boards. Tampa's station, CTTV, airs a call-in show with the mayor and broadcasts monthly shows involving the fire, police, parks and rec department, zoo and aquarium. The council meetings are broadcast live on Thursday morning, then replayed that night, Saturday and Wednesday. CTTV's budget is $800,000, which includes salaries for eight.

The last time Station Manager Mindy Snyder checked, 55 percent of cable subscribers said they'd watched the station in the last three months. Council meetings were its most watched show, according to the station's 1997 survey.

Clearwater, a city half the size of Orlando, is even more impressive if for no other reason than its station is kept afloat with a smaller budget of $387,000. Besides broadcasting public meetings, Clearwater airs public-safety shows with the city's police chief and a live call-in program with city commissioners. The next step is to begin streaming video on the Internet. "We're trying to be progressive with our station," says Jackii Molsick, Clearwater's director of public communication and marketing.

What, then, has taken the Hood administration -- which lately has been throwing around the buzz words "progressive" and "proactive" -- so long to jump on board? Hood is a former public relations executive. She of all people should know the value of television as a city propaganda tool.

According to Hood spokeswoman Susan Blexrud, the mayor was concerned that television would affect how commissioners and the public behaved, making council meetings painfully longer. "Council meetings are interminable anyway," Blexrud says.

But officials in cities that broadcast meetings say they haven't witnessed a change in the length of meetings. "If anything, they're shorter than they used to be," says Kathi Brake, station manager of WSPS-TV, St. Petersburg's city-hall station.

Charles N. Davis, who wrote a book titled "Access Denied: Freedom of Information in the Information Age," says the concern about longer meetings is similar to arguments against cameras in the courtroom. "People said that trials would drag on and on because people would play to the cameras," says Davis, a University of Missouri journalism professor who completed his doctoral work at the University of Florida. "It was all unfounded."

Another concern is what can indelicately be described as the gadfly issue. Some city officials are concerned that television will attract citizens who either want to be on TV or who want to shame commissioners in front of the cameras. In truth, the liveliest part of most council meetings is when citizens are allowed to speak. They are allotted five minutes to talk to the council about whatever they wish. Some have rambled about religious themes and the apocalypse. Others have pointed out rumors of affairs or retribution by code enforcement.

Only one Florida city, Tampa, fails to broadcast this portion of its council meetings. The city passed a resolution years ago saying CTTV wouldn't air audience comments unless they were part of the regular meeting.

Most Florida cities broadcast the entire meeting, even when things get ugly. "We don't ever, ever, ever edit anyone," says Michelle Bono, Tallahassee's communications director. "We've been accused of purposely messing up when a community advocate came on. But we're not that sophisticated."

Besides, the viewing public can determine who has a legitimate complaint and who is being vitriolic without cause.

"People will be seen for what they are, says Charles Davis. "If a person is a complete nuisance, he'll receive less support from the community. The public can tell if a person is an obstructionist, violent or unstable." Rather than fear the public, he says, "I would be wary of any government that makes it difficult to attend meetings, either virtually or in person."

Besides, citizen input is valuable. "You'd be surprised at the degree to which representatives don't know what the issues are," says Christa Slaton, a University of Auburn political science professor and author of two books on teledemocracy. In her city of Auburn, Ala., for example, the local government wanted to rezone an area of fallow land so that a developer could build homes. "The planning commission had not done any studies on traffic or environmental impact,"says Slaton. "Residents pointed that out." In the end, Auburn officials decided against the rezoning.

The hope is that Council TV has a similar ability to increase awareness in Orlando, so that city leaders will act smarter. (It's also fun to watch who is feeding at the public trough. This week it was David Hughes of Hughes Supply, who received $12 million to build a $60-million development in Parramore.)

But it won't be easy to turn a lethargic electorate into a participatory democracy. Watching a city-council meeting is a lot like being a cop -- hours of boredom followed by minutes of excitement. Yet in a city where turnout in some municipal elections is less than 10 percent, anything to improve participation should be made a priority.