An informed public, one that has reasonably easy access to public policy discussions, helps keep a balance in political decision-making and it strenghtens civic involvement. But in Elkton there are enormous challenges for any citizen trying to stay even minimally informed about public business.
Legacy Media Doesn’t Cover Municipal Meetings
One of the major barriers is the daily newspaper, the Cecil Whig. It stopped assigning a reporter to attend Elkton meetings (a place where the actions of elected officials affect nearly 15,000 residents) some 12-months ago. For a paper trying to provide valued local content, this is a readily available source for that type of copy since there’s lots of news at most meetings. However over this period there has been a significant absence of municipal news coverage. Reporters rarely attend meetings now, and only once or twice has the daily covered a public policy matter here. Certainly if we were trying to strengthen the value of a legacy publication, we’d routinely cover the largest town, the county seat.
A few years back the Whig had an excellent political reporter, Scott Goss, covering the meetings. As a subscriber and someone interesting in public policy matters, we found that his stories met high standards of journalism. It gave both viewpoints, added his first-hand observations of unfolding events, and it was done creatively. Oh, he’d ask some follow up questions of politicians, something that always enhances political reporting. Whenever we saw his byline, we’d read those pieces to stay informed about town business. But in this era of new media, that was ages ago and we guess newspaper executives have forgotten what adds value to their brand, as they hasten print’s demise.
Town Streams About Half of Its Public Meetings
The town took a helpful step a few months ago, when it created a YouTube channel where video of the regular board meeting is archived for a few weeks so the public may view proceedings. But still with that approach, they don’t stream the other public meeting, the workshops of the Mayor and Commissioners, which is where decisions are really made. The Board uses those meetings for extensive discussions and they take straw votes in preparation for the formal meeting. By the time it comes before the regular board meeting, the pros and cons have been hashed out and it has largely been pre-determined how the votes is going to go.
With this delivery method, the public is not privy to the deliberations. We’d strongly encourage the town to include its other public meeting on E-Span, which is what we call the town’s YouTube Channel. Why not, we ask? It was stated by advocates for this method that the town wanted to make the public business readily available.
One other way to stay informed is through the minutes. But those aren’t posted until they’re approved at a subsequent board meeting, some weeks after the fact. Oh while we’re making suggestions, we’d encourage other quasi-g0vernmental entities to routinely post minutes. When one posts some, but leaves large gaps of many months, that isn’t helpful for building a wider-constituency or for keeping people informed, especially when that’s one of the goals of an agency.
What brought this up is at the last workshop the Mayor and Commissioners were discussing waiving fees for a new project. There are strong opinions on both sides and that is great for you want a subject to be examined. One side wants a parking lot for economic development and the other is worried about the broader impact on the taxpayers as fees get waived. To try to get an informative post up on this subject, we filed a Freedom of Information Act request Friday to get the recording of the meeting. However, the CD we received is scratched so we’re unable to hear critical parts of the discussion. Why not just include your workshops on E-Span, if the original goal was to keep the citizens informed?
As for legacy print media, you’d think they would see the business opportunity for some important local news content. But oh well that’s their business as a private enterprise that wants to have more readers so those advertisements have impact value. Perhaps someday, some highly paid executive in print will figure this opportunity out before it’s too late because they have lots of external forces beyond their control pushing against them. But covering their beat, especially the hard news, is one that is under their control. In the past covering the deeper content helped newspaper circulation zoar.