Tuesday, May 28, 2024

City Council and School Committee roundtables are generally about the city’s most urgent and interesting topics. They’re also the hardest for the public to see.

Let this be the year that we end forever the official resistance to the televising of “roundtable” meetings – maybe in November, when we vote on who gets to be a city councillor and School Committee member for the 2018-19 term.

 width=After years of frequent debate, the council changed its rules in 2016 to say roundtable meetings “may be broadcast,” though the option has been used spottily and applied without a lot of sense: It’s up to a councillor to make a formal request. Subcommittee hearings are treated the same. (Here’s hoping councillors who believe in governmental transparency make it a habit to do so, just as councillor Craig Kelley routinely votes against late policy orders on principle.)

The School Committee has no such rule, and none of its roundtables can be televised. Subcommittees aren’t unless they’re subcommittees “of the whole,” made up of every committee member.

This is bizarre because the meetings are not only public, but are audio recorded for official use in typing up minutes – some, but not all – and can be (and are) recorded by the public and press. Sometimes the press and public even records video and streams roundtables and subcommittee meetings live online. Yet some officials cling to the belief “roundtables” are magic and, free of official broadcast, elicit richer and more honest and candid exchanges of information.

The falsity of this position is pretty clear from efforts in past years to televise roundtables just by changing their designations to be “special meetings” or “working groups.”


The oddity of the position is made clear by the simple fact that roundtables (two-hour sessions of slightly less formal discussion without votes or public comment) are called to explore demanding, complex issues in depth, which generally means it’s meetings about the city’s most urgent and interesting topics that are the hardest for the public to see as they take place. They then become the hardest to understand fully after the fact, since they aren’t part of the public record. Citizens can watch hours of council debate over curb cuts, thanks to the televising of regular meetings; but anyone curious about certain discussions over anything from the $160 million school campus on Cambridge Street to the future of Kendall Square have one official option: read the minutes, which can be of wildly varying quality.

The dangerousness of the position was illustrated perfectly in September, when citizens complained they’d been promised more direct access to city manager candidates via “town hall” meetings and received an all too common rebuke:

“As we typically see, there’s a lot of misinformation floating around that sounds like fact when people repeat it,” said David Maher, the city councillor and former mayor who led the search process. “The original schedule called for one town hall meeting.”

But it wasn’t misinformation or a typo that led to their complaints, as was made clear by reviewing video from the April 6 subcommittee meeting in which Maher himself clearly promised multiple town hall meetings:


The meeting wasn’t televised, but it was filmed and released on YouTube by independent journalist John Hawkinson, who posted it on Cambridge Day.

If there’s any rationale for keeping the cameras off, it’s about ensuring non-public officials are as comfortable as possible giving potentially unwelcome or controversial testimony, as explained by School Committee member Richard Harding. “For me as a politician, we want to be on camera all the time,” he said in a Tuesday phone call. “[Non-politicians] often feel it’s intimidating to be on camera, and I’ll do anything I can to make them feel unintimidated.”


He and fellow committee member Kathleen Kelly feel the quality of questions and answers is different when cameras are on – it’s Harding who said professionals and educators need to feel they can be “honest and candid” – although they, administration officials speaking during regular meetings, student committee members and anyone talking during public comment seem to manage well enough. The assertion that the quality of expert evidence and analysis is better without cameras on leads inevitably to the notion that the best quality is received out of the public eye entirely, which should be rejected forcefully.

One Cambridge official went so far as to say years ago that there was “something magical” in the difference between a televised and untelevised roundtable, but it’s hard to identify the public policy that’s been so brilliantly enhanced by the lack of video.

There’s more magic to the ease of access, transparency and government accountability offered by full video of all our public meetings, and it’s time for all of our elected officials to acknowledge it.

This post was updated Jan. 6, 2017, to note that some meetings are audio-recorded for the purposes of typing up minutes and some are not. Council meetings, even those without video, are not.