In some towns, the issue has never come up; in others, officials say they are working on it; and in still others, there are mixed views.
"The problem is, it's time-consuming and expensive, and it has to be interesting for someone to watch," said Hoboken Board of Education President David Anthony last week.
"It's always a great idea to televise meetings because elected officials do most things behind closed doors," said Jose Arango from the Jersey City Communications Department, looking at it from the other side of the fence.Jersey City is the only town to consistently air public meetings, and they only air their council caucus meetings, not regular council or school board meetings.
There are four cable companies in the North Hudson area: Comcast, Cablevision, Time Warner Cable, and RCN. Comcast provides cable to Jersey City and Secaucus; Cablevision provides to Union City, Hoboken, Weehawken, North Bergen, and West New York; and RCN is in the process of being made available to Jersey City, Hoboken, and Guttenburg. Guttenberg is the only city also served by Time Warner Cable.
Almost every town has free cable channel access time available for the public and for the government. Towns covered by Cablevision are allowed to share channel 71 as public access and 73 as government access. Secaucus, in addition to these, also has its own channel, 36. In Jersey City, government access is on channel 1 and public access is 51. Guttenberg's public access channel is 95.
Both Comcast and Cablevision provide equipment, editing facilities, and airtime free of charge. They even offer training for the use of the equipment. They don't provide the personnel to tape the shows.
All of the free services have been available from the beginning of each agreement with any town.
"It's standard offering," said Maureen Parenta, Manager of Media and Community Relations at Cablevision. "We provide the training and the equipment. They would need to provide the volunteers."
So why aren't the towns taking advantage of this?
In Secaucus: Events, not meetings
The city of Secaucus has their its channel worked out with Comcast, channel 36, but they do not televise any meetings. Town Administrator Anthony Iacono commented on the issue.
"There has always been an interest, but it would have to be done in the most professional way possible," Iacono said. "If you do it in-house, similar to home equipment, it doesn't come across right. You don't want to turn town policy into a comedy hour."
Although Secaucus does not put the meetings on television for public viewing, Iacono said that they do put a lot of time into getting important messages on the channel. He also said that Secaucus pays a company $12,000 to tape just four events like fairs and other citywide collaborations per year. The cost includes the right lighting, shooting, and editing.
The Secaucus Board of Education also has its own channel, 34. They take advantage of their channel by taping and airing events involved with school. But a secretary at the Secaucus Board of Education said the board does not televise their meetings and does not have any plans to do so.
"The taping [for the events] is done mostly by the students," said Iacono.
Waiting game in Hoboken
Officials in the city of Hoboken have been promising public access for approximately five years. Currently, no meetings are televised. Michael Korman, the town's public information officer and a former member of the mayor's cable committee, said, "Originally, we were going to put a studio into City Hall, but it didn't make sense because we didn't have the manpower. Also, technology gets better and cheaper with time."
"Down the road," Korman said, "I could see meetings being broadcast. Cablevision has been promising cable modems for four years. Finally they are coming, which will bring a new dimension of access. Because of the new technology coming into Hoboken, more events will be televised: sporting events, even parent meetings if they wish. There are a lot of possibilities."
Korman said that the city doesn't have the personnel to use Cablevision's equipment remotely. "City employees don't work during those hours," Korman said. "We would have to hire employees to come in during the meetings." Cablevision does supply equipment, editing facilities, and the access time, but they do not provide personnel in the evening."
David Anthony, president of the Hoboken Board of Education for the past seven years, wasn't so sure the programming is necessary.
"Board meetings are open to the public," Anthony said. "If no one comes to the meetings, they're not going to watch them on television. Is it that important to have meetings on television if no one comes? Seven years ago 300 to 400 people would go to the meetings. Now, we find at a lot of meetings, no one from the public comes. If people aren't showing up, it means they're satisfied."
John Branciforte, a Hoboken resident who ran for City Council in 1999, disagreed.
"There's a lot of people who work late hours but want to be involved," Branciforte said. "For example, senior citizens are very interested in what goes on, and they can't make it down to City Hall. If people aren't coming it doesn't mean they're satisfied. It could mean parents don't have babysitters, or maybe the meetings are held at an inconvenient time."
David Anthony noted that in the early 1990s, school board meetings were sometimes taped by students. "Students would come and film them," he said, "but soon they would disappear, and so would the equipment."
Recently, Hoboken received a grant from Cablevision and some help from RCN to build a studio at Hoboken High School. According to Anthony, the studio should be finished by next year, which means students will have the ability to tape games or plays or the like and put them on the educational access channel.
Another possibility is that the students could tape the town meetings. Korman said, "It would be a great opportunity for them to learn about technology and government." He said that the overall vision for the new studio was that when it was complete, cameras would be installed into City Hall and be networked to the studio.
But City Councilman Tony Soares, a former member of the mayor's cable advisory committee, said he believes the current administration just doesn't want meetings broadcast.
"This is the same administration that banned the public from bringing video cameras to the council meetings," Soares said. "They don't want any live broadcast of what's going on."
Mixed opinions in Union City
Union City also does not televise any meetings. Superintendent of Schools Thomas Highton said, "The meetings might have to be edited down, but we would be willing to have them taped." He also said that the Union City Board of Education does their own information shows for each of the public schools. They are put on public access channel 71 when there is free time, whether a Sunday morning or Sunday night.
Board of Education Vice President Leonard Calvo likes the idea. "It's a great way to educate the public and for them to see how the city's money is being spent," he said. "At the same time, it may drive parents to come to the meetings. They might want to ask a question to one of the members of the board in person. We strive for parent participation."
Gayle Kaufman, Union City's director of public relations, said, "Informing the public is part of the democratic process." She said it's something Union City would want to look into as long as it's not cost prohibitive.
But Michael Licameli, Union City's city clerk, made a point for the opposing side of the argument.
"It's not a great idea," he said. "From watching other cities do it, I'm gonna say it encourages personal performance. It also keeps the public watching just to see what the members of the council will do next. It doesn't seem to be a step in progress. It seems like entertainment."
Licameli added that the public will only watch to see if the members make a wrong move, use a word incorrectly, or "pick their nose." "If people were interested," Licameli said, "they would come to the meetings."
Guttenburg and North Bergen
Mayor Robert Sabello of the town of Guttenburg said that the topic had never been brought up there, but it's something they may want to look into now.
"Anything like this would help the town," Sabello said. "A lot of things happen that the public doesn't know about. This is an opportunity for them to pick up everything. I would be an advocate if the rest of the city board wanted to go along with it." He said that if the idea goes over well, they might work something out with RCN to have the meetings taped.
Right now, the town's cable company, Time Warner, has a channel 10 news that has been in existence since 1980, according to Time Warner Director of Public Affairs Lorane Moonie. "The town will get covered when something interesting is going on," she said.
In North Bergen, Ana Blanco, account executive at Vision Media, a public relations firm that works for the town, said that right now none of the town meetings are televised. She said that the decision is up to the town's commissioners.
When phoned for information on why meetings are not televised, North Bergen Town Administrator Joe Auriemma and Commissioner Hugo Cabrera did not return messages.
Jersey City does it ... sort of
It's not impossible to televise public meetings. Jersey City has each of their council caucus meetings televised through their local cable company, Comcast.
According to Comcast Director of Public Affairs Robert Smith, for two years Jersey City has had an agreement with Comcast in writing to air the meetings. But the taping was provided even many years before that. Smith says Jersey City and Comcast see taping meetings, which appear on channel 1, as a community service.
Comcast's employees, interns, and freelancers all help in the process. The truth is, said Smith, "If a municipal government wanted to televise their meetings, there is a way."
Smith said that in Kearny, meetings are taped and given to the cable company to air. In other places like East Brunswick, automated cameras are permanently installed into council chambers.
Jersey City airs only their caucus meetings, but they also tape forums with the mayor so that the people can be informed about what's going on in their local government.
Jose Arango from the Jersey City Communications Department commented, "More information to the public is better for democracy."
Then why doesn't Jersey City televise the actual meetings?
"I think televising the actual meetings could lead to a circus fair," said Jersey City Council President Tom DeGise last week. "The caucuses are where the business is discussed. It's a far more controlled atmosphere. During the council meetings the public speaking portion can go on forever. I don't know if the public would be more interested in the caucus, where issues are explained and discussed, or the interminable public meetings. Also, all of the members of the council would feel more of a need to defend attacks rather than just let the public speak."
Mia Scanga, a Jersey City resident who is active in town affairs, was more suspicious. "It's like a banana republic," she said. "People don't know what's going on. They treat us like a third-world country."
But Scanga wasn't so thrilled with Comcast's handling of the process, either.
Scanga said that at one time, she tried to tape a panel with three Manhattan officials about the New York City garbage problem and some other environmental issues. She said that Comcast sent her a camera and even someone to set it up, but it didn't work.
"It happens all the time," Scanga said. "Most of the equipment is outdated."
The panel went on, but Scanga was never able to air it because of the insufficient equipment.
Alan Pollack, a Jersey City Resident, said he does his best to tape as many council meetings as possible and air them on public access. He said that Jersey City has studios available at Snyder High School, and NJCU that city officials are not taking advantage of.
Pollack said that the public access channel only airs government-related programming from 5:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. seven days a week.
But what of the rest of the time?
"The cable company runs 'The Box,' hoochy videos you call up and pay money for, on 84 percent of the public access channels' actual airtime," Pollack said.
Not a priority in Weehawken and WNY
Both Weehawken and West New York do not televise any meetings on their own. The only coverage of town meetings is from Cablevision when there is something interesting happening.
Richard Turner, who serves as both Weehawken's mayor and West New York's town administrator, said that the topic had never been brought up in either town.
"When we signed our franchise agreement with Cablevision, we were given the choice of where to put all of our funds to," Turner said. "We could have chosen City Hall [and a variety of different things], but we made a conscious decision to put all of the technology where it's needed most, into the schools. This is where the technology provides the greatest benefit, for the students. It's more productive for the dollars involved then it would be to try to tape every meeting. Our priority is the students. They're the future."
When asked about why the towns don't take advantage of the free remote equipment offered to them by Cablevision, Turner responded, "I can't imagine doing that. I've never even heard of it before. We would just have to provide our own personnel, but nothing ever works out as smoothly as it sounds."
Turner said that right now, their main priority is to get all equipment and technology that's available into the school system, but if they had other funds, they might consider televising City Council and Board of Education meetings.
North Hudson towns are split on the topic of televising town meetings. But wouldn't it promote citywide involvement? Isn't this what every local government wants?
"They just don't want people to know what goes on," Jersey City activist Mia Scanga said sourly.
Hoboken's John Branciforte was hopeful.
"People can watch them from their home and have some sunlight shine on these meetings," he said.