Honolulu City Council may cut funds for televising its meetings
By Gordon Y.K. Pang
Advertiser Staff Writer
A plan by some City Council members to chop funding for the televised broadcasts of its committee meetings is starting to draw protests from their colleagues and others.
Nestor Garcia, chairman of the council's budget committee, said eliminating committee broadcasts would save the city about $123,000 and is necessary to show the council is making hard budgetary choices for itself as well as city agencies during tough economic times.
Councilman Donovan Dela Cruz opposes Garcia's proposed change in the legislative budget, which has already passed two of three required approvals before the full council. Dela Cruz was the only council member to vote against the measure — Bill 14 (10) — on April 21.
"Part of our responsibility is to let the public know what's going on," Dela Cruz said. "I mean, how else are they going to hold us accountable?"
O'ahu residents living farthest away from Honolulu Hale, including those in his Central O'ahu-North Shore district, would be most affected, Dela Cruz said, noting that the council's plan to increase the fuel tax already makes it a bigger burden for his constituents to drive to City Hall for meetings.
Dela Cruz said he knows people watch committee meetings because his office often gets phone calls from constituents reacting to actions being taken even as meetings are still going on.
The proposed budget cut would eliminate funding for the production of the telecasts, including the personnel who operate the equipment. The public would no longer have access to committees on live broadcasts and rebroadcasts on 'Ōlelo community television or instant access to the videos online via the council's Web page.
Hawai'i Kai resident Natalie Iwasa was one of only two people to testify against the cut last month.
"Having the videos available not only via TV but online gives us the opportunity to check what council members said, and, if we have questions about what they said, to go back and double-check it," Iwasa said.
"And that's so valuable for people trying to find out what's happening with our government and the different positions that our representatives have."
Iwasa noted that the council's website features an "on-demand" video library with a data base that allows people to find any broadcasted meeting that included discussions on topics or bills they might be interested in.
"Probably in hard economic times, it's even more important that we have information, not less important," said Chris Conybeare, president of Media Council Hawaii. The council's mission includes improving public access to information.
"The public should know what they're saying and why the budget requires certain cuts," Conybeare said. "I'm sure there's $123,000 in the budget somewhere to keep the public informed."
No one has kept any statistics on how many people watch the committee meetings and some have suggested the viewing audience is small. But Conybeare said that doesn't matter.
"No people will watch it if they cut it," he said. "Having to do it in public provides its own constraints and removing that public scrutiny is a very bad idea."
Gerald Kato, a University of Hawai'i-Mānoa journalism professor, said he can appreciate the council's desire to trim the budget.
Nonetheless, "by bringing the process to the people, it enables a broader participation and greater transparency to that process," Kato said. "Not everybody can take time out to go to a hearing, or spend a day at a committee meeting to participate."
The impending closure of The Honolulu Advertiser and the merger of two TV newsrooms last year have resulted in fewer reporters covering council proceedings, making it even more imperative that the council ensure there's as much public access to their meetings as possible, Kato said.
Lynne Matusow, a member of the Downtown Neighborhood Board, said if council members want to show they're making sacrifices, they can reduce funding in other areas, such as eliminating one staff position from the budgets of each council member.
"Everybody's got their financial problems but you don't jeopardize transparency for the public," Matusow said. "Why just chop committee meetings? They should chop the (full) council meetings, too, so they can do everything behind closed doors and there's no transparency at all."
The council's $13.5 million internal budget, as proposed by chairman Todd Apo, has been cut in other areas. Council members' salaries have been reduced 5 percent.
Their office contingency accounts, which became a news topic after Councilman Rod Tam paid a fine for abusing his privileges, have also been trimmed from $16,000 to $14,000.
The proposal calls for leaving enough money in the budget so monthly meetings of the full council would continue to be shown live and in rebroadcasts, as well as online.
But Keali'i Lopez, president and chief executive for 'Ōlelo Community Media, said that the council's committee meetings are where the most substantive discussions and debates take place.
"It's definitely where the bulk of the discussion and a lot of the information is shared," Lopez said, adding that the rules for full council meetings allow less time for debate while committee meetings are more free-flowing.
'ōLELO CAN'T PAY
'Ōlelo, the nonprofit given the task of providing community programs on O'ahu cable TV, provides the equipment, resources and air time.
Full council meetings have been broadcast on cable TV since before the inception of 'Ōlelo 20 years ago, Lopez said. Committee meetings have been broadcast for "at least the last 15 years," she said.
The council has a contract with another nonprofit, Access Service Corp., to produce the broadcasts and run the equipment.
Access Services also has a contract to produce broadcasts of some committee and full House meetings when the state Legislature is in session,
Glenn Booth, Access Services president, declined to weigh in on the debate over the broadcast of committee meetings.
Booth said he's on an extension of a two-year contract that technically ran out in 2009, pending a resolution of a dispute involving the new contract. Booth said he employs four people to produce broadcasts of the council's meetings. He said he's not sure if cutting the budget will reduce his staffing.
Garcia said 'Ōlelo should consider paying for the production of the meeting broadcasts on its own.
Lopez said she'd like for 'Ōlelo to help fund the production, but her own budget has been operating at a deficit.
"If that were something we could assist and contribute to, we would want to," she said. "We're just as vested, I believe, as the council is in having the community have access to those decision-making processes. The challenge for us at this point is that we, from a fiscal perspective, aren't in a position to be able to provide that assistance just yet."
The state in 2000 capped the amount of cable franchise fees given to 'Ōlelo so a portion of the fee can be diverted to other projects, Lopez said.
Both Dela Cruz and Councilman Ikaika Anderson said they will try to restore funding to broadcast committee meetings when the Budget Committee meets on May 24.
"For most working people, it's very difficult to get to Honolulu Hale," Anderson said. "This way here, they come home at night and they can watch the reruns at their leisure. I don't think we should take that away from them. It's the right of the people to stay involved."
Garcia, a former television journalist, said he recognizes the irony that he's the one proposing to eliminate the broadcasts.
"But it's an issue of fairness," he said. "If I'm going to be cutting departments, I need to show I can cut my own budget."
Apo, the council chair, backed Garcia's position.
"I'm torn on this ... and I'd love to find a way to keep it in because transparency and access are very important," Apo said. "But if we are looking at cutting other departments, we have to look at ourselves as well."
Both Garcia and Apo said they would restore the funding for the broadcasts if there's enough public outcry. But to date, there has been little interest shown by the community, Garcia said.
"I need to hear from more people, and not just council members," Garcia said. "The general public has to weigh in, too. I need to know if people really want us to spend $123,000 on their government. It's their taxpayer dollars. If they feel that this is a good investment of their taxpayer dollars, let me know."