Jackson commissioners: Coming soon to a screen near you
Jackson County commissioners may start broadcasting their meetings, bringing to the masses the nitty gritty of local government — tax collection reports, committee appointments, budget shuffling of low-level line items, and the not-to-be missed community proclamations, like the one in honor of Firefighter’s Week that passed nothing short of unanimously in September.
Of course, airing the twice monthly county meetings on cable TV and online would also let the public in on the debate and discourse behind more weighty and pressing issues facing the county, like whether to embark on land-use planning in Cullowhee or the cost-benefit of adding more school resource officers to the county’s payroll.
“It is an invaluable tool for an open and transparent government,” said Bob Garland with Stress Free Productions, a video company that manages a local government channel in neighboring Haywood County. “It becomes a great official record of each of the board meetings.”
Stress Free Productions made a pitch to Jackson commissioners at their meeting this week to launch and operate a local government channel on the county’s behalf. It would be added to the lineup of local cable providers at no cost to cable customers. Video of commissioner meetings could also be posted online.
“One of the concerns you may have is not everyone in Jackson County has access to cable so how could they benefit from this? One of the ways is by putting that online,” said Ryan Hipps with Stress Free Productions.
Stress Free Productions has operated a government channel for Haywood County on a contract basis for about 10 years. Haywood’s channel airs county commissioner meetings, tourism development authority meetings, school board meetings, special events like local parades, and locally-produced video spots on county services.
However, air time is mostly filled with a rolling display of digital bulletin boards enlightening the citizenry on county services and resources, like how to call in reports of stray animals, the routes and schedules for public transit, or how to apply for veteran’s services.
Jackson County Manager Chuck Wooten is a fan of doing something similar in Jackson.
“I think it is an opportunity to get information out there, like programs offered at the county recreation center,” said Wooten.
Garland said the channel could also come in handy if the county needed to disseminate critical information to residents in the event of an emergency. Stress Free Productions could also produce video spots on any subject the county wanted, like the services offered by the senior center. Any government entity in the county — including towns, the schools or even Western Carolina University — could submit video to air on the cable channel, as long as it is informational and not commercial.
The wild card
Televised meetings could give public airing to the regular reaming of elected commissioners by engaged — and at times enraged — local government watchdogs.
“Is public comment filmed?” Jackson Commissioner Chairman Jack Debnam wanted to know, asking the question no doubt on the minds of other commissioners as well.
County commissioner meetings include time set aside as an open forum for any member of the public to address leaders on any subject they please, for up to three minutes each. The public comment sessions usually star a small but dedicated cast of the same characters, offering up critiques of the county’s handling of various local issues.
But the public comment period can draw as many as a dozen or so speakers when hot-button topics are on the table, like the recent debate over whether to extend an economic development grant to the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad.
Ultimately, it would be up to commissioners whether to air the public comment portion of the meetings. In Haywood, they are aired, and may be one reason the meetings are so well watched.
Haywood commissioners are regularly stopped in the grocery store, at the bank or when pumping gas by strangers who say they saw them on TV. Haywood commissioners at one point contemplated taking the public comment portion of the meetings off-air to put a stop to grandstanding.
The total cost of a local government station would depend on the level and caliber of programming Jackson commissioners want to have. Haywood County spent about $25,000 on Stress Free Productions services last fiscal year. Haywood handles some aspects of the channel’s operation in-house, like creating the public service digital messages.
The cost would be offset by a stream of state revenue the county could tap if it had a local government channel, Hipps explained. Counties with their own government channel get a share of sales tax collected on telecommunications services and video programming services, which would amount to about $32,000 a year for Jackson.
The county would also bear some upfront costs of rigging the commissioner meeting room with recording equipment.
Haywood and Buncombe counties and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in Cherokee currently broadcast their meetings on a dedicated cable channel and online. The Haywood County School Board also records all its meetings and broadcasts them on its own YouTube station. Neither Jackson, Swain nor Macon counties have a government channel.
In Macon County, however, a citizen-journalist has taken on the task of recording local governments meetings and posting the videos to his own free website, Thunder Pig.