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Legislators should let sunshine in



Published: Sat, March 15, 2014 @ 12:00 a.m.

COLUMBUS

You can come down to the Statehouse on Tuesdays or Wednesdays (sometimes Thursdays) when the Ohio House and Senate are in session and watch bills being debated in committee hearings.

They’re open, public meetings. The only constraint on access is the size of the room; when the crowds are too large, overflow areas with streaming audio are usually provided.

If you missed a hearing on a proposed law change, you may be able to access submitted testimony on House and Senate committee websites.

And if you missed a session of the Ohio House Finance Committee, you generally can watch recorded footage online, via the Ohio Channel (www.ohiochannel.org).

Most of the time, if you are a credentialed member of the Statehouse Press Corps, you can make your own recording of committee hearings for broadcast, giving readers and viewers some additional context. However, the way the rules are written, you must first obtain permission from a committee chairman before setting up your tripod and hitting record.

If you are a member of the general public, you may be out of luck, because lawmakers don’t provide blanket approval for private citizens attending public meetings at the Statehouse to record Ohio’s law-making process.

I have watched lawmakers stop mid-sentence in committee hearings to tell audience members about the prohibition.

I have also attended meetings where only credentialed reporters were allowed to record.

And last week, the head of the Ohio House’s Ways and Means Committee initially denied me permission to record video footage of a public hearing on Gov. John Kasich’s mid-biennium review.

Miscommunication

Rep. Jeff McClain, R-Upper Sandusky, said later, through a spokesman, that he changed his mind on the issue after the hearing started, but that was not clear to me.

What was clear were his comments a few minutes before the gavel: “We’re not making any exceptions,” he said, adding later concerning the recording of future meetings, “It’s something I’ll consider, just not today. ... I did check with leadership and they’re in agreement with supporting me on this.”

In the seven years that I have covered the Ohio Statehouse, I have uploaded more than 4,700 shaky video clips, including footage from press conferences, hallway interviews, protests and legislative committee hearings.

Lawmakers who head the panels have been very cooperative. Last week’s Ways and Means hearing was the first time that someone has stopped me from recording a public meeting.

To be fair, I have since received assurances that I’ll be allowed to record future Ways and Means hearings. So I’ll chalk up last week’s initial denial to miscommunication by the new head of a legislative panel who has been thrust into the public spotlight a couple of meetings into his chairmanship.

Still, the way lawmakers handle the recording and broadcast of committee activities makes no sense.

It makes no sense that lawmakers refuse to allow the broadcast of public meetings via the Ohio Channel, which carries voting sessions of the two chambers and House Finance Committee hearings. As I understand it, Statehouse rooms are set up to accommodate cameras, and the cost of streaming sessions would not be prohibitive.

It makes no sense that members of the public aren’t allowed to take pictures or record video of legislative hearings whenever they want, so long as they’re not being disruptive or overly disrespectful of the proceedings.

And it makes no sense that credentialed members of the press corps would ever be blocked from providing video or audio coverage of public meetings.

Reasoning

Ask lawmakers about the policy on recording committee hearings and they’ll tell you, “Those are the rules, we’re just following the rules,” seemingly oblivious that they are the ones who make the rules.

Public meetings are public meetings. Lawmakers should move now to allow broadcast of all of their committee hearings via the Ohio Channel.

And they should stop blocking members of the public and reporters from taking pictures or recording legislative activities.

Marc Kovac is The Vindicator’s Statehouse correspondent. Email him at mkovac@dixcom.com.


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