Lawmakers last week explored the possibility of livestreaming interim committee meetings online to make them more accessible to constituents, but Legislative Service Office staff warned technical challenges could dog the effort.
Livestreaming meetings would create additional burdens for an overburdened LSO staff and could produce inconsistent broadcasts in a rural state where internet connectivity isn’t alway reliable, agency director Matt Obrecht said. It could not be done without changes in policy or additional resources, he said. But government transparency advocates said such concerns represented “small hurdles” and that the Legislature had nowhere to go but up when it comes to public access to committee discussions, which today are recorded by LSO but not made public online.
Meeting in Cheyenne on Wednesday, members of the Select Committee on Legislative Facilities, Technology and Process passed a motion asking for a trial livestreaming system for the coming interim period between the 2018 budget session and the 2019 general session. The committee does not sponsor legislation, and can only make recommendations to the Legislature’s Management Council, which is made up of House and Senate leadership. They also asked that meetings in two committee rooms in the temporary capitol, the Jonah Business Center, with audio-streaming capability already in place, be livestreamed online as soon as possible — ideally by the budget session which begins in February, Senator Michael Von Flatern (R-Gillette) said.
When the Legislature is in session in Cheyenne, audio from the House and Senate chambers are livestreamed and posted on the LSO website. Deliberations of the Joint Appropriation Committee over agency budgets are also livestreamed and archived. Other committee meeting recordings aren’t available online, however. LSO staff does record each meeting and a citizen can request copies as public record.
The disparity arises from a 2005 statute that makes discussions between lawmakers and the LSO staff attorneys who write their bills confidential. LSO staff worries such discussions — made in the course of a public meeting — could be picked up on recordings. If a citizen requests a recording of the public meetings, LSO staff listens to it to ensure there is no confidential material before fulfilling the request.
Transparency advocates have called this worry overblown.
“Who’s discussing confidential matters during a public meeting?” asked Jim Angell, director of the Wyoming Press Association, in March.
Angell was speaking with WyoFile after the Senate killed a popular bill to remove the confidentiality clause for anything picked up on LSO recorders. That legislation would have allowed the agency to post an archive of the recordings online. Obrecht told WyoFile at the time that such an archive would be a prohibitive imposition on staff if they had to listen to more than 165 days of committee meeting audio to hunt for confidential material.
Angell dismissed these worries because, he noted, anyone in the audience recording, or listening, also would have the opportunity to hear conversations. And indeed, the confidentiality concern doesn’t apply to livestreaming, Obrecht told WyoFile in September. “Whatever you say, whatever’s picked up is broadcasted, it’s out there already,” Obrecht said.
Legislature’s policy of traveling the state complicates things
Public attention turned to the issue in recent months. The Wyoming Tribune Eagle demanded that lawmakers “step out of the darkness” in an Aug. 27 editorial, the Wyoming Association of Municipalities livestreamed a Joint Revenue Committee meeting in September, and the Casper Star-Tribune’s editorial board called on the Legislature to institute the practice around the same time.
Other government bodies, like the ENDOW Committee and the Wyoming Environmental Quality Council, have used Facebook and YouTube to bring their deliberations to the public in recent months.
According to the National Conference of State Legislature’s website, 42 states livestream their committee meetings.
But even in the age of YouTube and Facebook Live, setting such a practice up for the Legislature’s committees isn’t as easy as it might appear, Obrecht said.
“Right now, with the policy and culture we have in place, we could not livestream effectively all legislative committee meetings,” the LSO director told lawmakers on the technology committee last week. “It just wouldn’t be possible.”
Ironically, the most vexing barrier Obrecht anticipates arises from an older legislative policy aimed at the same goal — citizen engagement.
Between legislative sessions in Cheyenne, Wyoming’s lawmakers travel the state for committee meetings. Because the capitol city is isolated from most of Wyoming, the Legislature uses interim committees as outreach, Obrecht said, “to bring the legislative process and part of the legislative decision making to those communities around the state.”
The policy is unique amongst state legislatures, LSO information officer Anthony Sara told lawmakers. He’s researched other legislatures and been in contact with the National Conference of State Legislatures, he said. While some states, like Colorado, may travel on special occasion — if they are meeting to consider a specific project in one city, for example — Sara said he could not find another example of a state that conducts all interim meetings outside the state capitol.
Over interim periods, lawmakers may gather in hotel conference rooms in Buffalo or Thermopolis, a community center in Rawlins, a library in Saratoga or the Oil & Gas Commission building in Casper, amongst many other locations. The practice gives the residents of those cities a chance to see their representatives in action and testify to them. As a secondary benefit, it also means lawmakers get to know the state — a Senator from Laramie will briefly sample life in Cody, for example.
But the practice has always presented challenges for LSO, Obrecht said, and the agency’s staff are already taxed traveling to, preparing for and managing interim committee meetings. Having to set up and manage livestream equipment, and reboot it if the connection goes down, would present an additional burden. Internet service isn’t uniformly reliable in the wide variety of facilities committees use. Obrecht said staff worry the Legislature could promise livestreaming as a service to citizens and then not be able to deliver when a connection proves inadequate.
One option the committee considered was to hand the responsibility over to Wyoming PBS. The public broadcasting company has livestreamed two meetings — one in Casper and one in Riverton — this summer, via YouTube with high quality audio and video.
Wyoming PBS sent a proposal to the committee to do the same for ten committee meetings next interim, and recoup their expenses from the state. PBS would not be able to do more meetings with their current staff levels, LSO staff told the lawmakers.
In part for that reason, the committee decided to ask Legislative Management Council to direct LSO to develop its own pilot program for livestreaming. The committee also asked Management Council to dust off the failed legislation for posting recordings online and sponsor the bill themselves.
Starting from zero
Transparency advocates testifying to lawmakers acknowledged Obrecht’s concerns, but said technological worries shouldn’t prevent the Legislature from finding a way to give the public access to meetings in the digital age.
“There are a lot of unique challenges here, small hurdles that we need to overcome” said Phoebe Stoner, the director of the Equality State Policy Center. “I don’t want that to be a barrier from us trying to reach the larger goal here of bringing very widespread meetings across the state to working people.”
But, she said, given the lack of easy access to recordings or livestreams today, anything lawmakers choose to do will be an improvement. “We’re starting from zero,” she said.
The public would be forgiving if a livestream dropped off, said both Stoner and League of Women Voters of Wyoming director Marguerite Herman, who also testified.
Part of the reason the public often doesn’t attend committee meetings is that they are held during working hours, both women said. And while holding interim committee meetings around the state is valuable, Herman said, as a veteran of many of them she tends to see the same people — lobbyists, reporters and other legislative followers.
Thus, the “live” component is not nearly as valuable to those trying to track their representatives as having an archived recording of the meetings online, accessible for when people get the time and interest to see what lawmakers are up to, Stoner said.
“We believe that transparent government and public access is foundational to our democracy,” she said.
Clarification: This story was updated on Nov. 20 to include the Wyoming Tribune Eagle call for livestreaming on Aug 27. — Ed.