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Toward greater openness ; Common Council's plan to video-stream its meetings can empower Buffalonians

Over at the Buffalo Common Council, the planets seem to be aligning to video-stream all of the Council's public meetings. Bravo. Governments should consistently do all they can to put the public's business in front of the public.

The trend toward allowing the public to watch government function in real time might have begun with the Watergate hearings it but began in earnest more than three decades ago with C-Span's televising of congressional meetings. In New York, citizens can now use the Internet to call up meetings of agencies and commissions, though in most cases they are available only after the fact, not as they happen. The widespread video-streaming of all local government meetings -- for towns, villages, cities, counties and school boards -- can't be far behind. Congratulations to those doing it now.

The wide view of government meetings can yield only positive results. Board members might be on better behavior, and the public will be given a better, though not an all-encompassing, view of the way business is conducted. If meeting videos are stored for retrieval later -- as they should be -- the public can check a legislator's consistency on the issues. A busy public will be more informed.

In that vein, the Erie County Legislature should seriously consider video-streaming meetings. The Legislature over the years has only deflected suggestions that it meet, even occasionally, in the early evening so working folks can attend. By streaming its meetings, including committee sessions where the real business is done, the Legislature would take a big step toward transparency.

As a fair warning to the uninitiated: Many government meetings are tedious if not as dull as dirt. Our elected officials sometimes take an hour to do what most folks can do in five minutes. They can become obsessed with the minutiae. Folks might even ask themselves, is this government necessary?

Hopefully, local boards will watch the Common Council's experiment, should it launch, and learn from any missteps. The Common Council should provide agendas so viewers can better follow the progress. Those agendas should provide capsule summaries of the legislation or policies being discussed and some background.

While some business can be tedious, in many cases important matters are decided. Rates and taxes are set, multimillion-dollar public projects are discussed and zoning is changed to make way for new development. Yet often the only people watching are those paid to be there. Video-streaming has the potential to revolutionize public involvement. Bravo to those public officials who make it happen.

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