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Supervisors OK Plan to Televise Meetings

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a surprise move, Orange County supervisors voted Tuesday to proceed with a pilot plan to televise board meetings.

Three board meetings will be taped and televised on KOCE, a public access channel that reaches all county residents. Comcast and Time Warner, two of the county’s cable companies, have agreed to tape one meeting each for free, and the county staff is seeking a producer for the third.

“I just think it’s very exciting that we were able to pick up the third vote for starting something that should have happened a long time ago,” Supervisor Todd Spitzer said.

Spitzer and Supervisor Tom Wilson have been longtime supporters of televised meetings. Board Chairman Charles V. Smith cast the swing vote.

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“My objection all along was not against televising board meetings but against making a tape no one’s going to play,” Smith said.

The plan to air the tapes on KOCE, which reaches all county households, and the minimal cost of the experiment persuaded him to vote for the pilot project, he said. The broadcasts will start within 60 days.

KOCE agreed to air the meetings for $250 each between midnight and 5 a.m. The tapes will be copied and distributed to the county’s six cable providers for delayed broadcast.

Orange is one of only a few counties in the state that do not televise supervisors meetings, though 75% of residents favor such broadcasts, according to a Times Orange County poll.

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The board majority in the past has expressed several concerns, among them the high cost of such a project, inability to reach all residents and the possibility that special-interest groups might dominate the sessions to get free air time for their views.

Supervisors Jim Silva and Cynthia Coad continued to oppose televising meetings.

“I think more people have access to computers than cable televisions and VCRs,” Silva said.

The county’s staff has estimated the cost of TV broadcasts at $325,000 for equipment and about $1,600 a meeting, or about $83,000 a year, for production.

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San Diego County, which has televised its Board of Supervisors meetings since 1994, does so on an annual operating budget of $900,000, which pays salaries of 12 production workers and covers maintenance, tape stock and equipment upgrades, said Barry Fraser, the county’s cable franchise administrator.

The broadcasts are carried free on cities’ local government cable channels and County Television Network, which is provided by cable companies as part of their franchise agreements with the county.

Los Angeles County began broadcasting its board meetings in 1995 and spent $246,000 for equipment paid over four years. In the latest fiscal year, the county spent $178,657 for equipment and production costs, said Judy Hammond, director of public affairs.

The county also pays $400 an hour to broadcast its meetings on KLCS Channel 58, which reaches all county residents. Last year, the total for about 175 hours of broadcasts was $69,800, Hammond said.

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Both Los Angeles and San Diego counties cover the costs with revenue generated by cable franchise fees.

Orange County’s pilot proposal calls for the county staff to give a status report in 90 days on public response as well as details of how the broadcasts could be continued. The board will vote then on whether to proceed.

Another option was offered Tuesday by a Chapman University faculty member. Political science professor Fred Smoller told the supervisors that the university would consider having students produce the weekly broadcasts through an intern program.

Chapman students already work in many other areas of county government, Smoller said. “It gets students involved in civic affairs and gives them practical experience in coverage of real live government.”

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Board response was positive. Smith instructed the county staff to pursue discussions with Chapman.

Starting in May, Internet users will be able to hear live audio as well as tapes of previous board meetings. The start-up cost of the Internet plan, which would be accessible to 60 people at a time, would be about $3,000, according to county staff documents. Monthly maintenance would cost an additional $800.

Spitzer said he supports using the Internet as a supplement to televised coverage.

“Never eliminate any option,” he said, but “I think common sense tells us the first line of access is television.”

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