Point a camera toward average citizens and their behavior inevitably changes. See them light up like movie stars, or watch them wilt like raisins. Either way, the camera does not go unnoticed. Every Monday night, cameras are trained on Missoula City Council members during the weekly Council meeting, but until now, Council meetings have been the only forum in which Council members are regularly televised. Soon, though, Missoula City Council members may find themselves with far more face time on the tube.
On April 4, MCAT (Missoula Community Access Television) launched another channel, and a government-appointed advisory board will soon determine whether to broadcast Council’s committee meetings as well.
“That’s probably going to be the stickiest challenge for the advisory council to determine,” says Missoula Communications Officer Linda Hegg, who will serve on the board.
MCAT has broadcast publicly produced educational and government programs via Bresnan Channel 7 in Missoula and Cable Montana 13 in the Rattlesnake. As of April 4, one cable channel, Bresnan Channel 11, is dedicated solely to government programming.
“We’re encouraging participation in a democracy,” says MCAT General Manager Joel Baird. “It’s a very fundamental endeavor.”
For the remainder of the legislative session, MCAT will broadcast between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. on Bresnan Channel 11 via live feed from the Capitol during weekdays. But with an entire channel and 24 hours dedicated to government programming, MCAT will be able to cover more of Missoula government in action.
But what to cover?
Since 2000, government coverage has generally included departmental profiles, Community Forum (neighborhood Council leadership meetings), planning board meetings and City Council meetings. By many accounts, City Council meetings are largely formalities. By the time agenda items reach the floor on Monday nights, they have already been determined in committee meetings, informal work-intensive sessions where Council members hash through the issues. In the past, committee meetings have been televised only upon Council request, or, irregularly, in response to viewer demand.
Televising more government work expands MCAT’s public access mission. (However, Ward 1’s Anne Kazmierczak, who supports expanded public access, points out that more programs on cable doesn’t mean more viewers: “Not everyone has cable, not everyone has the Internet.”)
But televising these government forums may inherently change the way government officials behave. MCAT’s Baird has witnessed plenty of camera-influenced behavior.
“I would sympathize with people who are shy about more camera exposure for additional meetings because I have seen that, initially, people are made self-conscious knowing that they’re being videotaped,” Baird says.
Some dress for success. Lately, mayoral candidates have been looking especially sharp, with Ward 3’s Lou Ann Crowley and Ward 1’s John Engen sporting fitted jackets. Ward 6’s Clayton Floyd announced for mayor wearing a camera-friendly black-and-white tie.
Council members themselves have various perspectives on how broadcasting committee meetings might affect the way those meetings are conducted.
Crowley, a vocal advocate of MCAT’s expansion, has no qualms about unveiling the sometimes messy work of lawmaking. At Council meetings, she says, “People see the end result of the work.” If committee meetings are broadcast, the public will be able to see lawmaking in process. “Why not let people see that?” she asks.
Ward 3’s Stacy Rye, though, wonders whether Council will be able to accomplish the same amount of work in televised committee meetings. Committee meetings are open to the public, and occasionally, topics may draw a crowd. Still, Rye feels that a live audience doesn’t have the effect that a camera does.
“I really worry about how the television camera may change the atmosphere in the room,” she says.
The camera, she believes, adds a level of formality to discussion that doesn’t currently exist in committee meetings.
“We really feel free in committee meetings to roll up our sleeves and get to the nitty-gritty,” she says.
Committee meeting language can every now and again devolve nitty-gritty, though expletives don’t often reach vice-presidential lows. In contrast, City Council meetings are more formal, and more often congratulatory. Some Monday evenings, nearly every Council member feels compelled to commend the Griz, thank a volunteer or praise police officers once a peer does the same. It’s civil behavior, but not necessarily productive.
The potential for decreased productivity isn’t a concern shared by all Council members. Even Council members who don’t fear that televised committee meetings will result in less work acknowledge that the nature of committee meetings may change, at least temporarily.
“It may change the way people speak,” Floyd says. In committee meetings, he says, people are sometimes “a little more candid and open than they are on Council floor.”
“Sometimes you might see a little bit more temper,” says Ward 5’s Bob Lovegrove. But, he says, that’s “very infrequent.”
Ward 1’s Heidi Kendall wouldn’t be surprised to see—at least at first—a bit of grandstanding.
“I think there will be some posturing that doesn’t go on now, at least in committee,” she says. But she thinks that Council members would eventually adjust.
“I think it’s a good thing, because all our meetings are public anyway,” Kendall says.
Ward 4’s Jerry Ballas doesn’t believe Council folks “pull any punches” while on TV. Even so, city government in action isn’t quite as sizzling as “Desperate Housewives.” Ballas doesn’t want the viewing public to tune in to committee meetings with elevated expectations: “Some of them are going to be pretty darn boring,” he says.
That’s not a promise or a threat—more of an observation. Outsiders looking in, though, have noticed that over the past year Council has had a hard time getting work done. If government folks open themselves up to further scrutiny on TV, boringly workmanlike sessions will probably be the least of the public’s concerns.