For your viewing pleasure

Published 10:06 am Saturday, October 10, 2009

Cable television broadcasts of Franklin City Council meetings, beginning as soon as this month, will build on council members’ efforts over the past year to make city government more transparent and more accessible to the citizenry.

It is, on balance, a positive development — and responsive to the strong message voters sent in the May 2008 city elections about their desire to be better informed.

It is not without disadvantages, however.

Having covered both televised and non-televised meetings during my many years of community journalism, I’ve seen first-hand the downsides of the former.

Primarily, look for council meetings to last longer. It’s no coincidence that meetings of the Isle of Wight County Board of Supervisors, which are taped for later broadcast on cable, last longer than do meetings of the Southampton County Board of Supervisors, which are not televised.

Invariably, televised meetings attract those who like to pontificate for the cameras. “Citizens’ Time” and other public-comment portions of City Council meetings will draw more citizens. That’s a good thing generally, but know that it won’t all be quality dialog. It’s a given that gadflies will proliferate, given a new forum and expanded audience for their soapboxes.

Board members themselves are prone to getting caught up in the spirit of pontification, especially at election time. This shouldn’t be a big problem for the current Franklin council, whose members tend not to be proud orators.

The job of the presiding officer — Franklin Mayor Jim Councill, or Vice Mayor Raystine Johnson in his absence — will become tougher. The council’s reasonable time limits on citizen participation must be enforced, lest a meeting drag on all night. Cutting off a speaker can be a tricky balancing act between firm leadership and heavy-handedness.

Cameras can encourage violations of other rules of decorum, so the chairman must work hard to remain in control.

Televised meetings, in rarer cases, can have the opposite effect. Camera-shy people, whether council members, staff members or citizens, will resist the urge to speak out because of how they will come across on TV. Anything that restrains candor is unfortunate.

Those are inconveniences that can be tolerated — and controlled, to the best extent possible — in exchange for the overriding benefit of a more accessible government.

There’s a misnomer that government should be pretty and smooth. Effective government rarely is. Lawmaking often has been compared to sausage-making, and the metaphor is apt.

More important than appearance is authenticity — and the ability of citizens to see for themselves their government at work, warts and all.