What happens in the courthouse...

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Saturday, October 11, 2014

The Single Biggest Problem Facing Kittitas County

Above, a video I recorded during the League of Women Voters candidates forum to demonstrate how easy it is to do. Why aren't county commissioner meetings recorded and available on the Internet?

The biggest problem facing Kittitas County is poor communication between the Board of County Commissioners and the citizens and key industries and institutions in the county. The current upset about marijuana regulations is just a symptom of the larger problem of poor communication, and it's hard to escape the notion that the commissioners like it this way.1

At the League of Women Voters candidates forum last week I was surprised to hear Commissioner O'Brien say he couldn't think of anything more the county could be doing to improve communication. By law, he pointed out, all meetings and documents are available to the public.

Of course, virtually all commissioner meetings happen during the workday and in the Courthouse in Ellensburg. This makes it difficult for people with day jobs, and people who don't live in Ellensburg, to attend even occasional meetings, let alone a series of related meetings. Scheduling conflicts can also make press coverage difficult, even for important issues.

Ellensburg City Council, Ellensburg School Board, Cle Elum City Council, and Cle Elum-Roslyn School Board meetings are all video-recorded and rebroadcast, which helps explain why press coverage of these bodies is so much effective than coverage of county business.2

Doing the minimum required by law isn't much help when it comes to giving citizens real access to what the commissioners are up to, and in this day and age it's not acceptable.

As reported by the Daily Record last week, Commissioner O'Brien stated that it was too expensive to video record meetings (meetings are audio recorded, but are not, as far as I can tell, available without a trip to the Courthouse). He mentioned some numbers: the cameras in the Ellensburg City Council meeting room cost thousands of dollars each, and recording and storing county meetings would cost $100,000 for the first two years. "If you don't have the dollars, it doesn't make sense," he quipped.

A quick fact-check: try Googling "meeting video recording equipment" without the quotation marks. On my computer, the second hit is a memo from the City of North Bend, 80 miles west of Ellensburg. The memo reports a bid process that led to a system that had a one-time cost of about $20,000 for equipment and an annual cost of $15,000 to $20,000 for a vendor to handle the recordings. So, about half of Commissioner O'Brien's estimate, but then again the North Bend City Council probably spends less time meeting.

But here's an interesting thing: the memo was from 2005, five years before Mr. O'Brien took office. In the nine years since 2005, it seems reasonable to expect that costs have come down, and we intuitively know this is true. After all, the first iPhone didn't appear until 2007.

Then there's the question of how much it costs not to video record and broadcast county commissioner meetings.

In fact, this failure has cost us real money and heartache. This was evident at the Planning Commission meeting, where I went after the candidates forum. By that late in the evening the crowd had dwindled from hundreds of people to scores of people, most of them upset by the marijuana industry regulations. Might proper communication have saved many people a great deal of time?

It strikes me that the commissioners prefer the current situation, and to the extent they have researched options at all, they did not look very hard for affordable solutions. As with many things, there are costs for acting, and there are costs for not acting. I think the costs of not acting are higher.3

1In an earlier post I -- or, rather, Commissioner O'Brien himself -- mentioned why the commissioners might not want meetings televised: "When there's that close a scrutiny, things can change."
2I use the old-fashioned terms "televise" and "broadcast." These could easily be replaced with "stream on the Internet."
3For a perspective on costs, according to a watchdog group, the Armory remodel is more than 100% over budget, representing unexpected spending of about $1.5 million dollars.

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