The Maine Legislature, which lags most other states in making audio or video of legislative hearings and deliberations readily available to the public, was slowly becoming more transparent.
In March, however, legislative leaders voted to suspend recordings of committee meetings in the next legislative session, which begins after November’s elections. This is an unnecessary step backward that should be undone.
Last year, the Legislative Council, which is made up of Republican and Democratic leaders, decided to upgrade the rudimentary technology that the Legislature used to broadcast some proceedings. The upgrades brought opportunities to improve public access to the Legislature’s work. In addition to improving the livestreaming of House and Senate proceedings, those sessions can now be recorded, archived and cataloged by Sliq Media, the company with which the Legislature has contracted. Work is underway to post archived video on the Legislature’s website, making it much more readily available to the public.
Upgrades also were planned for the audio from public hearings before the Legislature’s 14 standing committees. Live audio from these sessions is streamed online, and members of the public can request archived clips. But the Legislative Council has repeatedly delayed a decision on making archived audio from committee meetings readily available on the Legislature’s website. The March vote, which was unanimous, stops the recording entirely until the council or the full Legislature votes to restart it.
At the Legislative Council’s April 28 meeting, during which members again discussed recordings, Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon Falls, argued that the recordings were concerning because several members of the public testifying before a committee may not know public hearings are recorded. There’s a simple remedy for this, however: a sign in each committee room stating that proceedings are recorded and that the recordings are publicly available on the Legislature’s website. Committee chairs can also verbally inform people about the recordings at the beginning of each hearing. They can remind those who submit written testimony that these comments are posted online for the public to see — and many committee chairs do.
At the April hearing, several legislative leaders also expressed concerns that video clips from floor sessions and committee hearings could be used in political campaign ads. But this can happen already, as no one is barred from recording the audio and video from livestreams or requesting recordings from the Maine Public Broadcasting Network, which records many legislative proceedings.
Mason also compared being recorded during a public hearing with being videotaped while voting, which lawmakers restricted this year. But the circumstances are clearly different. Voting is protected by privacy laws; testifying before a legislative committee, clearly a public forum, is not.
All states offer live audio or video webcasts of legislative floor proceedings, and 41 states archive them. Of the 41 states that provide webcasts of legislative committee meetings, 35 archive them, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Many Maine municipalities, including Bangor, record local government meetings via video and make the recordings available to the public on the Internet. These recordings help keep the public informed and make it easier for many to access their local governments.
Simply put, the public’s business at all levels of government must continue to happen in the open. Recording and streaming legislative hearings and sessions, and making them available to the public via archived video and audio, is part of that transparency.
In the absence of a compelling rationale — which is clearly lacking — there is no reason to restrict public access to recordings of the official daily State House proceedings. It would be a step backward to stop recording committee meetings and to fail to take advantage of the Legislature’s new archiving capability.