Traverse City Record-Eagle

September 26, 2012

Forum: A simple transparency test

By Joe VanderMeulen
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---- — Imagine a world where you could watch eye-opening, televised debates between candidates running for your township board. A world where you could watch the deliberations of elected officials anytime — without commercials.

If truth be told, local politics affect everyday life far more often than most of the blather in Washington, D.C. Your local officials decide whether a public restroom gets built, a sidewalk goes in, or a new company down the road gets a special property tax break.

That brings me to the role of Public, Educational and Government (PEG) TV. This little miracle of cable TV empowers everyone. And everyone who exercises that power gives something back to the community.

This summer, the League of Women Voters conducted short TV interviews with nearly 30 local candidates for UpNorth TV 97 & 992, the region's public access TV station.

This "Video Voter Guide" was an incredible gift to the community and local democratic processes. Such citizen-led efforts can help achieve true transparency in government. If you miss a cablecast, no problem. You can go to the UpNorth Media Center's web site and with a few clicks, stream the videos of candidates speaking about the issues that matter to you.

The discussions and actions of our elected officials should be visible to all of us. Elected officials make local laws (ordinances) and must enforce them fairly. Government transparency means citizens can see what's going on, quite literally. You, as a citizen, may not be able to attend every public meeting, but in the age of digital video, you should be able to watch the proceedings when and where it's convenient — all of the meetings.

Unfortunately, many of the region's elected officials have sidestepped this obvious opportunity for government transparency. In many townships, villages and counties around our region, elected officials and planning commissions meet regularly, but offer citizens little more than meeting minutes a month later. Even the elected board of the region's community college has failed this simple transparency test. Citizens need to ask why and ask for better.

The community can also celebrate the triumphs of transparency. Over the last five years, the elected officials of Traverse City, as well as East Bay, Elmwood and Garfield Charter Townships have embraced government access TV. You can watch their meetings on Government Access TV 99 & 994 or online at the UpNorth Media Center's web site. Grand Traverse County has also committed to transparency by joining community access TV, cable-casting commission and committee meetings and streaming them over the Internet.

Other governmental units have stepped up as well. The Traverse City Area Public Schools Board can be seen on PEG TV, using Educational Access TV 98. The Traverse Area District Library's Board can be seen on Public Access TV's UpNorth TV 97 & 992.

Local governments should open up their meetings to citizens and embrace transparency. You may not want to watch all of those meetings, but you most certainly should have that option.

About the author: Joe VanderMeulen is Executive Director of the Land Information Access Association & UpNorth Media Center, a Traverse City-based non-profit that operates our region's only pubic and government access TV stations. He holds a B.A. in English and creative writing and a M.S. in earth science and hydrogeology from Western Michigan University. He also holds a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan in Natural Resources and Environmental Policy.

About the forum: The forum is a periodic column of opinion written by Record-Eagle readers in their areas of interest or expertise. Submissions of 500 words or less may be made by e-mailing letters@record-eagle.com. Please include biographical information and a photo.