Friday, March 23, 2007

Monday Night Fights

Painting by George Bellows

“It may have been Monday,” Jeff Barron wrote in the Daily Times (3-13-07), “but Portsmouth City Council staged its version of Friday Night Fights last night.” For those of you who might not be fight fans, ESPN2 televises Tuesday Night, Wednesday Night, and Friday Night Fights. In Portsmouth, it’s a little different: the Fights, billed as City Council meetings, take place the second and fourth Monday of each month, and they don’t get televised. In addressing the council members about their unprofessional behavior at the 3-12-07 meeting, Eileen Perry told them an unpleasant truth, which is that the reason council meetings are not on television is that the council probably does not want them on television.

Why doesn’t the Portsmouth city government want the council meetings on television? Why does the city government continue to drag its feet when many cities in Ohio, some much smaller than Portsmouth, have been uninterruptedly televising city council meetings for years? Waverly, with a population of only 4,433, has been televising their council meetings for so long that somebody I spoke to in the Waverly mayor’s office said she had lost track of the years. Ironton, with half of Portsmouth’s population, televises their council meetings. Chillicothe, a city with a population about the same as Portsmouth’s, televises their council meetings on two channels. Two to Portsmouth’s none!

So how come Portsmouth does not televise its council meetings? Older citizens claim they were televised way back when. But why no longer? How come Waverly, Ironton, Chillicothe and hundreds of other Ohio communities can televise their council meetings but Portsmouth can’t? A Time-Warner official in northern Ohio told me it’s not hard to televise meetings and it’s done all the time. There is an exception – Portsmouth.

Eileen Perry’s explanation of why they are not televised is one I would agree with: the meetings are probably not televised because the city government does not want them televised. The Portsmouth city government prefers to operate in the dark, out of the public’s eye. The council meetings are broadcast on a local radio station, but listeners know how difficult it sometime is to hear on that transmission. For example, during the 3-12-07 meeting, I am told, technical difficulties rendered the first part of the broadcast unintelligible.

One of the things the Portsmouth city government does not want the public to hear or see is how five or six members of city government gang up on the one city council member who has no strings attached to him, the one city council member who is not a puppet: I refer, of course, to Bob Mollette, who represents the Third Ward. Mollette is ganged up on because, among other reasons, he has waged a tireless campaign for openness in government. As part of that campaign, he has called more than once for televised council meetings. In a letter to the City Council (2-27-06), Mollette urged the city to televise council meetings to citizens on a tape-delay. The Council Minutes (1-10-05) state that Councilman Mollette had “reported having spoken with Mr. Gangly with Adelphia and was told by him that as far as getting Council meetings on cable that could be done if he is supplied with a VHS tape and would play it as many times Council deems. He said he felt this to be an idea for consideration in order to reach more people.”

I talked recently to Mollette, who told me Adelphia Cable had been ready and willing to participate in this exercise of open government, at no cost to the city, but the city found ways to make it not happen. On one occasion, Adelphia was fifteen minutes away from broadcasting a taped meeting when it was canceled. Mollette suspected Adelphia got a call from the powers-that-be to cancel the telecast. Time-Warner has since replaced Adelphia, and Time-Warner is willing and able to televise the meetings, but Time-Warner will discover, if it hasn’t already, that Portsmouth is not like other Ohio cities. Portsmouth discourages, not facilitates, televised council meetings. Mollette told me a modest sum was appropriated for television taping in last year’s budget, but that nothing has been done about it.

The city must televise the council hearings so that the citizens of Portsmouth can see for themselves who the temperate, hardworking, and honest people in city government are, and who the foul-mouthed, devious, and lazy ones are, who the watchdogs are and who the lapdawgs are. They will also see who the citizens are who faithfully attend these meetings, and who avail themselves of the right to speak to the council, a right that was nearly abridged last year at the urging of Councilman Marty Mohr. If council meetings are really Monday Night Fights, the public has a right to watch them in the safety of their own living rooms, instead of being insulted live by the mayor and others, or being frisked by police before entering.

In a recent letter to council president Howard Baughman, dated March 20, 2007, Mollette called again for transparency in local government, saying, “I still believe the best opportunity to inform the public exists with replaying City Council meetings on Time Warner Cable Television.” If the Monday Night Fights are going to continue at city council meetings, they should be telecast. The public has a right to see one man who is fighting for good government and who is taking on a tag-team of palookas who know the fight is fixed and want to keep it that way.