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O.C. Supervisors Finally Agree to Televise Meetings

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Five years after the grand jury urged Orange County supervisors to increase public accountability by televising their meetings, the board acquiesced Tuesday, joining hundreds of cities, counties and school districts throughout California that conduct business before the cameras.

“After all the badgering and getting the supervisors to vote for it, we’re really pleased that it did pass,” said Jean Askham, president of the League of Women Voters of Orange County. “Finally, and I do mean finally, this county will be televising its meetings.”

But don’t tune those television sets just yet.

The board voted 4 to 1, with Supervisor Jim Silva dissenting, to have county staff renegotiate terms of a proposed contract with Network Television Time, the same group that broadcasts meetings of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.

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“We do not have an anticipated start date for televising the meetings,” said Diane Thomas, a county spokeswoman. “That will be worked out, along with the final cost, after we renegotiate the contract.”

The proposal, which makes Orange County the last major county in California to televise its meetings, had long faced opposition from a majority of supervisors. Supervisor Charles V. Smith questioned whether meetings would ever be broadcast, while Supervisor Cynthia Coad was worried about cost. Silva believed that cable companies should broadcast meetings based on market demand and not rely on a government subsidy.

But Smith and Coad switched their votes after supervisors agreed to televise meetings for only 12 months with the option to terminate the contract if viewership surveys show a lack of interest.

In explaining his dissent, Silva said, “I have always had concerns about paying to televise meetings. . . . Public access here is great.”

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To Askham and others, Tuesday’s vote was a long time in coming.

“People have been lobbying for more than five years, ever since the grand jury recommended doing it,” Askham said.

She took issue with the board’s desire to gauge viewership response in six months. “They want to evaluate in six months to decide whether they drop it after one year, and you can’t get a Nielsen rating like that,” she said. “So I guess they expect people to write these little notes saying they liked it.”

The issue of televising meetings was prompted in part by a 1995 grand jury report titled “Openness in Orange County Government.” The report recommended televising the board’s meetings as one way of making government more accessible to county residents, many of whom cannot attend the Tuesday morning board sessions because of work or child-care obligations.

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The findings also came in response to issues of access raised in the wake of the county’s 1994 bankruptcy, the largest in U.S. history.

During an earlier videotaping experiment, supervisors were taped and then each tape was distributed to cable television companies for broadcasting at the company’s convenience. But that pilot project drew responses from fewer than 100 people.

Preliminary estimates are about $200,000 to $250,000 for production and leasing equipment, based on the board’s decision to rent rather than lease production equipment for the year.

The original proposal, which would have cost $187,000 a year, was to contract with Network Television for a year with a four-year renewable clause, provided the county lease the equipment.

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Supervisor Todd Spitzer, who along with colleague Tom Wilson had pushed for televised meetings for many years, said getting Smith and Coad to support televising the meetings was contingent on having the ability to terminate the contract in 12 months.

“I can sum it all up in one word: Hallelujah!” Spitzer said. “I campaigned on this five years ago, and both Wilson and I have been actively pursuing it.”


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