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Lights, camera, local gov’t action!

Community board meetings could be webcast, but cost is an issue

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Posted: Thursday, February 20, 2014 10:30 am | Updated: 11:21 am, Thu Feb 27, 2014.

A proposal by a city councilman from the Bronx may lead to a whole new way for local community boards to share information and get area residents involved.

But exactly who is going to foot the bill for any incurred costs remains a primary concern.

James Vacca (D-Bronx), a community board district manager for 26 years prior to being elected to the Council, proposed legislation on Feb. 4 that would require community boards across the city to broadcast their monthly meetings on the web.

“I always thought it was important for people to know more about local government,” he said in a telephone interview with the Chronicle. “It’s very important to know what’s going on.”

He admitted that “money is always an issue. If resources are needed, I’d advocate for that.”

The City Council is expected to address the proposal at a hearing on Feb. 24.

Reaction to the proposal among Queens boards was mixed.

Betty Braton, chairwoman of CB 10, said the legislation in the City Council states that “... each board shall record its public meetings and hearings in digital video format. Such meetings and hearings shall be webcast live, where practicable ...”

She said it does not address the related expenditures.

“My assumption would be that each community board would be responsible for the resulting costs if the legislation is enacted,” she said, adding that she sees both positive and negative ramifications.

“Transparency is a good concept,” she said, but said that the negatives far outweigh whatever positive effect there might be. Her first and foremost concern is the cost.

“Community board budgets have not increased in years,” she said. “Our budgets have not kept pace with inflation, and operating costs increase every year. Purchase and maintenance of the necessary equipment would place an additional burden on our already stretched-thin budget.”

To accomplish webcasting, she said, would require cameras, software and other necessary hardware, along with necessary training to use them. She believes there would be staffing impacts. In addition, she is concerned that “not every location may be suitable for doing what the legislation would require without creating possible disruption or rearrangement of how space is utilized.”

Braton worries that the picky little details involved would be onerous for community boards. She also is concerned the that taxpayers would be paying for whatever is required to put the idea into practice.

“I’d bet that most of them would probably prefer we focus on their problems rather than on focusing cameras,” she said.

Alexander Blenkinsopp of CB 9 has long advocated steps to streamline and modernize the board.

“It would be great if community board meetings were broadcast over the web,” he said.” He would like to see those webcasts remain accessible on the internet as “a sort of permanent archive.”

Blenkinsopp believes webcasts would enable residents who cannot make it to meetings to learn what happened.

“Those who have mobility issues or who can’t leave work early have just as much a right to watch their community board meetings as those who can attend in person,” he said.

He said that it is important that this be done with the community board members’ knowledge, citing a recent experience where some members of CB 9 were displeased when they learned that one of their fellow board members had been audio-recording meetings and posting the recordings on line without informing them. Though in favor of the proposal, he does wonder about cost and “whether there would be enough viewers to justify that cost.”

Susan Seinfeld, District Manager of CB 11, said her board already has a laptop and would, therefore, probably not need to buy a camera to broadcast on the web.

She believes her chairman would have no problem if they have to do it.

“It’s just a matter of working out what it takes to do it properly,” she said.

But District Manager Gary Giordano of CB 5 said the whole proposal was a bit of a shock to him.

“I don’t know that we’d have anything but a lot of difficulty in paying for it,” he said. “It’s a big ask for a little agency. I don’t know of any funding that the city is making available for that purpose.” He admitted that the board would have to review the matter further before forming a conclusive opinion on the proposal.

A spokesman for Councilwoman Karen Koslowitz (D-Forest Hills) said the legislator is in favor of the bill in principle, believing it would lead to “greater dissemination” of information.

He said Koslowitz doesn’t like that the bill is silent regarding how it will be financed.” He said she would like the cost to be picked up by “some other entity.”

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