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Council TV may trigger voters' interest

January 27, 2003|by Dick Fleming

After every election, someone raises anew concerns about lack of voter participation.

If we are looking to assign blame, there is plenty to go around among candidates, media and citizens.

Too many candidates engage in dishonest debate that misrepresents their intentions and those of their opponents. Too many in the media pursue sound bites and headlines over a more substantive examination of candidates and issues.

And too many citizens who are too jaded, confused or just plain lazy to make sense of it all join the apathetic majority and tune out.

Given that, it's encouraging that elected officials in Hagerstown are looking for ways to get citizens more engaged in elections and the workings of government.

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The City Council has decided to televise its meetings and work sessions beginning in March. Another proposal under consideration would schedule city elections on Saturday to promote turnout.

Councilman N. Linn Hendershot has been at the center of discussions for both proposals. The Saturday voting is his idea.

Give the councilman credit for having the community's interest at heart, even if you disagree with his arguments.

Hendershot - alone among the council members - favors televising only the council's voting sessions, which include public hearings and citizen comments.

He opposes having the cameras on during work sessions, at which the council deliberates on issues but does not vote. Hendershot fears that televising those deliberations will have the unintended consequences of inhibiting debate and giving grandstanding speakers a broader forum.

There is an element of truth in those concerns. People do act - and speak - differently when they are on camera. Some are intimidated and clam up for fear of embarrassing themselves or - in the case of many politicians - making a public utterance that may not play well with one constituency or another.

On the other hand, if the camera forces equivocating politicians to take consistent stands rather than tailor their remarks to different audiences, it will be an added benefit.

As for the grandstanders, viewers can draw their own conclusions about the merits of their ideas. Moreover, the concern about playing to the camera is outweighed by the advantages of giving greater exposure to minority views.

Of course, televising meetings and getting people to watch are two different things. The same lack of interest that keeps citizens from attending meetings will keep many from watching them on television.

That disinterest makes it unlikely that Hendershot's proposal to hold city elections on a Saturday would significantly increase turnout.

There are, first of all, legitimate concerns about competing weekend leisure and religious activities that make Saturday elections untenable.

More importantly, inconvenience is a flimsy excuse for not voting. Election Day hours provide adequate opportunity to vote for those so inclined, and there is scant evidence that extending hours or rescheduling elections will increase turnout among the disinclined.

I believe some citizens would be less likely to exclude themselves from the process if they had more reason to believe their voice matters and had a better grasp of what's at stake.

Televising discussions of public policy may be a small step toward motivating citizens to become more engaged, but it is a start. And even if it fails, its affirmation of the importance of open government makes the effort worthwhile.

Dick Fleming is weekend editor at The Herald-Mail. He can be contacted at 301-733-5131, extension 2329, or by e-mail at dickf@herald-mail.com.

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