Part of the role of media is to follow what elected officials and senior staff at public agencies are doing, to pay attention to what is being done by whom, when, where, how and why.
And when it comes to covering the decisions by public officials at places like city hall and the school board, public meetings are the iceberg we watch from our rickety media boats, rocking on the waves, wondering what is going on in the 90 per cent that lies beneath the water — behind closed doors.
Occasionally, a whistleblower, a leaked document or FOI request gives a glimpse of the hidden iceberg, but mostly the meetings and willingness of public officials to talk are all we’ve got. (Of course, most of what goes on behind closed doors is also banal and boring and bureaucratic and not in the public interest.)
“Public meetings” sometimes, however, don’t feel as open as they should.
At an Oct. 9 special regular Chilliwack Board of Education meeting, something happened between disruptive attendees and the board chair. Trustee Heather Maahs was talking about protecting students from homeless people in and around The Portal downtown. A member of the public is heard to say “here, here!” Then someone else said something, but I couldn’t hear what it was on the recording on the school district’s YouTube feed.
Then, at 49:41 the feed cut out. At 52:16, it was back on. Board Chair Dan Coulter asks: “Are we back on?”
Beyond my own curiosity, I don’t care too much what happened. I’m told it was along the lines of a disruptive and disrespectful attendee losing his or her cool. What I care about is that the feed got cut to a public meeting. If the instinctual response to an uncomfortable exchange or a disruptive attendee at a public meeting is to shut down the video feed so that the members of the public who are not in the room can’t see or hear, something is wrong.
Did the school board chair also asks those in attendance to avert their eyes and plug their ears lest they hear/see something uncalled for? If I was present, and they cut the feed and I then fired up a Facebook Live video, would I have been asked to stop?
At the Nov. 26 school board meeting, Trustee Heather Maahs brought forward an action item to get the Board of Education to “seek a legal opinion regarding what circumstances a board is entitled to edit its board meetings.” Note that a meeting can’t be edited; what she meant was the video feed.
“I would like to clarify if it is the chair’s right to stop a meeting,” Maahs said, adding that she was not opposed to it happening when necessary.
Secretary-treasurer Gerry Slykhuis said he spoke to a retired superintendent who suggested that the district might be at risk of using a live feed in case someone says something slanderous or releases private information about a student.
“This is a business meeting,” he said, suggesting that the live feed might be giving people a platform to disrupt.
Huh? I’m sorry, but that is ridiculous. These are public meetings. Members of the public are welcome to sit in the gallery. Sharing the meeting on a video feed online does nothing to increase legal liability. All it does is change the size of the audience.
“The board is subject to legalities, whether you don’t film or you do,” Trustee Darrell Furgason rightly pointed out. “The secretary-treasurer seemed to be saying this is simply a business meeting. No it’s not. It’s public transparency…. The press are here too. The press can report whatever they want without the video.”
Exactly. And if no one from the press is present, we can now watch it online, as has been done for years at city hall. If a meeting’s video can be cut or otherwise edited, that’s a violation of the public’s right to know.
Democracy is often ugly, and it’s usually messy. If we are lucky, at the best of times, it’s just boring.
Watch or don’t watch, behave or don’t behave, comment or don’t comment. But don’t censor the boring, the messy or the ugly.
A public meeting is the tip of the iceberg but it’s usually all we’ve got.