6:54am

Thu March 20, 2014
Politics and Government

Activists take to their smartphones to webcast Assembly meetings

Government reform activists took their smartphones into Assembly Committee meetings to live stream meetings that so far have not been available online to the public.

To mark what’s known as Sunshine Week, to promote a more open government, the activists took their smartphones into several Assembly Committee meetings. Using simple software, they pressed record and streamed the proceedings live on the Internet.

Citizens Union’s Alex Camarda says it’s the first time ever the meetings have been available online. He says the Assembly has 84 committees, subcommittees, and task forces.

“None of which regularly webcast or make available their proceedings to the public unless you show up in person,” Camarda said.

The picture is handheld and the sound is a bit muddy, but the recordings reveal several key elements. One is that most of the meetings are brief, lasting about five minutes or less, and not much happens.

Majority party Democrats methodically work their way through legislation, sponsored by Democrats, and are interrupted only by questions from minority party Republicans. Democrats answer with somewhat strained patience. The GOP lawmakers then almost routinely vote as a bloc against all of the bills.  

A few lawmakers seem more focused on their Blackberries and iPhones than the proceedings.

At the Assembly Environmental Conservation Committee meeting, the first several minutes of the recording features lawmakers eating, as they reach eagerly for a large platter of sandwiches and pop open sodas.

In an indication that the lawmakers know they are being recorded, a sign on the food makes clear that the spread was not paid for with taxpayer money.

A staff member for committee chairman Robert Sweeney confirmed that the Assemblyman pays for the lunch, since the meeting is always held at noon time.

And the chairman of the Small Business Committee, William Scarborough, went out of his way to acknowledge the live streamers.  

“Welcome,” Scarborough said.

Bill Mahoney, with the New York Public Interest Research Group, was one of those recording the meeting. He says it costs next to nothing. He believes just having the cameras there can improve the quality of the meetings.

“It’s like the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, you can’t view something without changing how that body behaves,” said Mahoney, who hopes the additional scrutiny might foster more debate and make the process more functional.  

The state Senate has been live streaming their committee meetings for the past several years.  A stationary camera is positioned several feet away from the lawmakers, and highlights chosen by the senators appear on the Senate website.

A spokesman for the Assembly says Democrats are currently discussing whether or not to adopt routine live streaming of their public meetings.  

The recordings of the Assembly Committee meetings are archived on Citizen Union’s website, Gotham Gazette.

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