Del. Marie March, R-Floyd. (Photo by Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
When faced with the prospect of having to livestream and archive video of public meetings, local governments across Virginia had wildly different ideas about what it might cost.
The town of Marion estimated it’d have to spend $300,000 in the near term on “hiring personnel to operate, maintain, and log sessions, plus equipment purchase and maintenance,” according to state records.
Prince George County said it might have to buy four high-definition cameras with ceiling mounts for $46,065, part of a total estimate of $138,056.
Mecklenburg County, on the other hand, said it could be done for almost nothing.
“The most likely impact is $0,” the county’s staff wrote, as long as Mecklenburg could keep archiving meeting videos on its YouTube channel instead of having to move everything to an official government website.
Calling some of those cost estimates “extravagant,” Del. Marie March, R-Floyd, said last month she’d be open to amending her mandatory livestreaming proposal so it would only apply to localities that could pull it off for under $100.
“This is much needed for transparency,” March said at an initial committee hearing on her bill. “The localities were able to normalize Zoom meetings during COVID. And because these meetings are held at times when folks work second shift at hospitals, plants, restaurants … they can’t attend these meetings.”
Despite numerous changes in the bill meant to protect localities that, for whatever reason, can’t figure out how to put videos online without breaking the bank, the House of Delegates rejected the proposal this week on a 47-49 vote. Most Democrats voted for it. Most Republicans, including some who had previously voted for it in committee, opposed it. That indicates the bill’s defeat may have had as much to do with its controversial patron as the idea itself.
In an interview, March said she’s convinced GOP leaders put “a hit” on her bills as retribution for an independent streak — most visible this year in her insistence on filing a more sweeping education savings account bill than the one leadership preferred — that has put her at odds with many of her fellow Republican delegates.
“Why would you play personality politics? I don’t. There’s a lot of patrons I don’t like that I vote for their bills. Pretty much all the bills,” March said with a laugh. “I think that’s a disservice to your citizens.”
March, who has not gotten any bills through the GOP-led House this session, is facing Del. Wren Williams, R-Patrick, in a primary later this year.
Most of Virginia’s large cities and counties already have some way of broadcasting and recording meeting video, but the bill’s failure means that smaller counties and towns won’t have to start streaming and recording meetings if they don’t want to.
In testimony on the bill, transparency advocates said there’s no good reason governments, even those with limited budgets, can’t stream meetings in an era of ubiquitous smartphone cameras. Some Virginia residents speaking for the bill said a sharable video archive helps them get others in their communities engaged in local issues, even if they can’t take the time to go to meetings in person.
“Why would anybody be opposed to letting their constituents have easy access from any time, any place, to what they’re doing?” asked Floyd County resident Kalinda Bechtold.
Representatives for the Virginia Municipal League and the Virginia Association of Counties, which advocate for the interests of local governments, told lawmakers they were opposing the bill due to the strain it could put on public resources.
“Quite frankly, some of these localities, their budgets are so minimal they couldn’t afford to do much at all,” said Michelle Gowdy with VML.
“So even $100?” asked Del. A.C. Cordoza, R-Hampton.
“A hundred dollars is a different story,” Gowdy replied. “But still we would oppose the bill because the concept of a mandate on localities is something we oppose.”
That stance left some lawmakers mystified.
“If a local government can’t afford $100, I suspect that perhaps they can’t afford to turn the lights on because of the cost of electricity,” said Del. Dave LaRock, R-Clarke, who voted for the bill in committee but didn’t vote when it was on the floor.
Del. Mike Mullin, D-Newport News, pulled out his phone and said, “Everyone is carrying a solution to this problem.”
“There are no problems with being able to do this functionally,” Mullin said. “The problems are with whether or not you want to do it.”
The local government groups opposing the bill said that even if a locality could afford streaming equipment, that wouldn’t address their concerns about the staff time needed to record and upload meeting videos.
Del. Joe McNamara, R-Roanoke, who opposed the legislation, said the language only requiring livestreaming if it could be done for less than $100 seemed to undermine the bill’s purpose.
“Everything costs $100,” he said.
Supporters of the bill said groups representing local governments were overthinking the complexity of the task.
“You don’t have to have a deluxe version in order to stream and archive your meetings,” said Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government. “All you need is a YouTube channel.”
The amended version of the bill included several concessions meant to minimize the burden for local governments. It specified the recordings could be in either a video or audio format. The rule would have only applied to regular meetings of a locality’s governing body, addressing concerns that localities that already stream their main business would have to start streaming meetings by planning commissions and other more ancillary local boards. And it specified that posting videos on YouTube would suffice.
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