The News Journal | by Sarah Gamard
The so-called “Delaware Way,” the bipartisan tradition in which First State politicians make decisions and work out tensions behind closed doors, could get in the way of the latest efforts to increase transparency.
In a state that’s been frequently criticized as having one of the least transparent governments in the country, a group of mostly Republican lawmakers is proposing that the General Assembly start recording its public meetings and posting them online for anyone to watch.
It’s something that the vast majority of states and several of Delaware’s local governments, in some capacity, already do.
But one of Delaware’s highest-ranking lawmakers, who controls the 41-member House chamber’s schedule, could try to block the effort over fears that private conversations could end up being recorded.
“I’m not too crazy about it,” said House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach, when asked about livestreaming. “I’m not putting cameras and microphones installed in our caucus rooms because we’d be at the mercy of anyone who’d want to tap into it and listen to us have our discussion.”
The bill does not mention recording private caucus meetings, which take place in some of the same rooms used for public meetings. Those caucus meetings are about as common as public meetings when the General Assembly is in session.
The proposal, House Concurrent Resolution 69, would create only a blueprint for how to livestream public floor debates and committee meetings in the General Assembly. Lawmakers would have to introduce a separate bill to actually execute it.
The bill doesn’t technically need a committee hearing. But Schwartzkopf, who decides when and how bills are voted on, put it up for a hearing in the five-person House Administration Committee that he sits on and votes in.
He said he did this because livestreaming will likely cost money. It’s not clear yet how much, and other states were not immediately able to verify how much their livestreaming costs.
Schwartzkopf refused further comment then. But Friday, after Delaware Online/The News Journal published this story online, Schwartzkopf released a statement saying he declined further comment because he wanted to “have a fuller discussion on this issue during a committee hearing rather than air everything out in the media.”
His statement said the story was based on “several assumptions.”
Schwartzkopf also said Friday he supports livestreaming the House and Senate chambers. He did not mention committee meetings.
Schwartzkopf’s statement said legislative staff have been looking into livestreaming for “more than a year.” He said the state can implement livestreaming without passing a bill or Smith’s resolution.
Livestreaming “is not as simple as setting a cell phone on a tripod and recording,” he said.
“When we do this, we will be creating an official government record. It needs to be archived properly and it should be easily accessible to the public afterward,” the statement said.
In past years, the First State has ranked at or near the bottom for its state government’s transparency and ethics laws, partly due to the accountability of legislators. Lawmakers’ emails – and emails to and from legislators’ staff – for example, are not public records in Delaware.
John Flaherty, director for the Delaware Coalition of Open Government, supports the livestreaming idea and called the speaker’s argument a “red herring.”
He thinks lawmakers, who meet for six months out of the year, should have an easy time switching cameras off in the caucus rooms, which regularly hold both public and private meetings. He guesses some elected officials are worried about being caught “goofing off.”
“What they discuss in caucus, I’m sure, if it ever got out, it would probably be embarrassing for many of them,” Flaherty said. “Because a lot of times, they’re not discussing public business.”
Democrats and Republicans say the private meetings are necessary to speak freely and gauge how much support a bill has before it goes to a public vote. The meetings are meant to talk about bills, strategies and constituent issues with fellow party members.
And the elected officials, regardless of where they stand on the livestreaming idea, want it to stay private.
“What’s said in caucus should always stay in caucus,” said Rep. Melissa Minor-Brown, D-New Castle. “That’s our opportunity to discuss how we feel about certain things, certain legislation, and we should be able to have those conversations in private with our colleagues. … It should stay behind those doors.”
“Everything just doesn’t need to be public,” Minor-Brown added.
She said she worries more about the cost of livestreaming than privacy.
“If it makes a difference between putting that money into education or putting that money into a needed resource in the community, I would choose that over … a livestreaming of session,” Minor-Brown said. “Because that (livestreaming), to me, is not a priority. … It’s a good idea, but it’s not a priority.”
Backers of the livestream proposal in the General Assembly don’t think it has to be expensive.
“I can literally stream a conversation in a country in another timezone with minimal cost as an individual person,” said Sen. Anthony Delcollo, R-Elsmere, one of the co-sponsors of the bill.
Supporters of livestreaming say it would help people know what their elected officials are up to while earning taxpayer dollars, on top of being more engaged and informed as voters.
The proposal has 13 co-sponsors, mostly Republicans. The Democratic Party holds the majority of seats in both the House and Senate, meaning they have an advantage over Republicans when passing bills that fit their agenda.
Most of the General Assembly is on break for six weeks while committees hold budget and bond bill hearings. They get back to debating bills in March.
Freshman Rep. Mike Smith, R-Pike Creek, who is championing the livestream proposal, said that the video access would give people outside of Legislative Hall a chance to “hold us accountable down here.”
To him, people who work or have other obligations during the day are unlikely to tune in when lawmakers meet on weekday mornings and afternoons. Audio of floor debates is recorded and streamed live, but not published online. If you want a copy of the audio, you have to formally ask for the audio from legislative staff, who aren’t obligated to respond for 15 business days.
“Livestreaming is just a natural thing, I think, with my demographic,” said Smith, who is 35 years old.
“We give the perception and the reality that we are hiding things,” said Rep. John Kowalko, D-Newark, who is co-sponsoring the livestream legislation. “There’s 41 of us … Dammit, you have an obligation to let those people know how and why you’re representing them.”
He wonders if livestreaming would lead to showboating on the part of some legislators.
“But, you know, people are not dumb,” he said. “They catch on to that after a while.”
Other Democratic leaders also are hesitant about the proposal.
Sen. Bryan Townsend, D-Newark, also worries about cost. He thinks it’s wrong to say that there is “some massive veil of secrecy over General Assembly proceedings.” He doesn’t expect private meetings to be secretly recorded.
“I don’t think we’re going to be installing microphones throughout the building in all the different rooms,” Townsend said. “I doubt that’s going to have the support, for good reason.”
Townsend prefers archiving audio of floor debates, which are already recorded, over filming them. But he doesn’t think people will want to watch unless the cameras film close-ups of lawmakers, which he worries could be more expensive than wide-angle views.
“I would be shocked if people find it that interesting,” Townsend said about wide-angle views of himself and his colleagues debating law changes.
House Majority Leader Valerie Longhurst, D-Bear, agrees that the public “should be able to see us, hear us, whatever.”
The second-highest-ranking Democrat in her chamber, who also sits on the administration committee that will decide the bill’s fate.
“We have to put some parameters around it,” she said. “It’s not as simple as just ‘put a video on the floor.'”
“I can see the concern of what would be called a ‘hot mic world’ where you get caught saying something in the QT that you maybe didn’t mean to say publicly,” said House Minority Leader Danny Short, R-Seaford, one of the proposal’s co-sponsors who also sits on the committee that will decide on the proposal.
“But you know, we need to be careful what we say and what we do,” he said. “Maybe there’s a master button that the speaker has where they go in that caucus room and make sure they turn it off.”
What it costs other governments in Delaware
Wilmington City Council, Kent County Levy Court, Sussex County Council and the Rehoboth Beach Board of Commissioners are some examples of the local governments that stream videos of their public meetings and put them online for anyone to watch afterward.
The city of Wilmington pays about $18,000 a year, not including staffing and equipment costs, to contract an outside vendor to livestream its council meetings, according to a council spokeswoman.
Sussex County Council spokesman Chip Guy wrote in an email to The News Journal that buying the equipment for his county cost about $50,000 a few years back, and the continuing cost “to provide this public offering is minimal.”
“To upload them is almost nil,” wrote Kent County Levy Court spokeswoman Kelly Pitts in an email to The News Journal, adding that there are “no additional costs outside of our overall IT expenditures” to do it.
Maryland and Louisiana’s legislatures were not able to quickly provide the annual cost of livestreaming and archiving their public meetings.