DOWN District Councillors are warming up to the idea of their meetings being streamed live in the internet.
The new Mourne Room, the Council Chamber, has a high-tech video system build into its infrastructure already to facilitate live streaming and since the Big Move in August 2012, teething problems have been ironed out and councillors and staff have now got used to the new system and seem interested in moving ahead with this development.
However, before they could begin to use it streaming on the Internet, Council would need to approve this development in a formal motion, and as yet this has not been sought nor given.
If meetings are streamed on-line from the Council chamber, anyone with a computer and Internet access via a broadband connection will be able to access a specified Internet address and then view the meeting.
To date, the system operates by showing the speaking councillor on two large viewing screens and that image will be the one that is portrayed through the public Internet portal.
In County Down, only Belfast City Council streams their meetings live, and Down District Council is ready to do so. Down Council will be merging with Newry and Mourne (which does not stream live) under the RPA arrangements in two years. The other County Down councils of Banbridge, Ards, North Down, and Castlereagh also do not stream live and all councils put their minutes of meetings on their own websites for inspection along with other key documents and policies etc.
Down News asked all of the political parties (in alphabetical order) on Down District Council including the three independent councillors their views on the live streaming given that is is a huge shift in the way that business has been done in the Chamber. (In alphabetical order) each party has been asked its thoughts and feelings and the heads of the parties have commented.
Alliance: Councillor Patrick Clarke: “We are supportive of the live streaming from the Chamber. The Council may have to put some guidelines in place but I believe the councillors are very much for it. The public have a right to see the level of debate that takes place in Council and as ratepayers they will be able to make up their minds who is working in their interests. So it is crucial what we do as councillors is open and transparent.
“It is important as councillors we work to a professional basis and therefore to be under public scrutiny is not a bad thing. The level of discussion and debate should rise and this will improve life for all including the council staff too who attend and support the meetings.”
DUP: Councillor William Dick : “We have to go with the times and we are in favour of online streaming of meetings. It should make the meetings more business focused. The public will then be able to see the real work that the councillors are involved in and their commitment. Certainly their behaviours will be more open to public scrutiny but I expect we will generally get through meetings in a much more quieter and business-like fashion.
‘It is really local democracy in action. We have only a positive view on it. I think generally the councillrs are working well now together to get through the agendas and the business of the meetings.
“It really shows what can be down when elected representatives work together. All too often councillors are criticised but when they deliver something good they should be praised. It is a partnership in the chamber in getting the business done.
Independent: Councillor Cadogan Enright : “I’m all for live reporting of our meetings. Certainly if a councillor is performing below a reasonable manner then it will become apparent to the public. Live streaming will generally improve the work and level of debate of councillors.
“It is interesting that in America even the tenders are discussed in public and there is nothing hidden in the discussion. I do feel like a few other councillors that Down District Council goes ‘into committee’ far too often. So if the technology is in place and it is paid for then we should be using it. I would be baffled if it were not used sooner than later.”
Independent: Councillor Mickey Coogan : “I am in favour of more openness and councillors who state a position privately will have to maintain a public position on it. So this has to be welcomed. This will certainly put a new spin on matters for some. Overall, councillors will need to be well versed and briefed on the content of agendas and meetings as they will be in the public eye.
“The door of the Council really needs to be open and I am all in favour of this. It will mean a cultural shift within the council but it is not that big an adjustment. After all, Belfast City Council stream live and it seems to be working well there so I am sure the ratepayers in Down District may find it interesting and get more insights into local politics and the work of the Council which is up to now largely hidden.”
Independent: Councillor Terry Andrews :”We should certainly be more transparent as a public body and I am all in favour of it. The public have a right to know what is going on in Council. After all, they are the ratepayers. If all the councillors are doing their job then no-one has anything to worry about. I personally believe in openness and I have even published my expenses sheets on Facebook for public scrutiny.”
SDLP: Councillor Eamonn O’Neill : “We in the SDLP have be very keen since the new Council offices have been opened to have live streaming and we have a number of reasons for this .Firstly we believe that the public should have greater access and opportunity to understand how Council works,how decisions are arrived at and the various arguments on both sides.
Secondly over several local government elections there has been a drop off in the number of people actually voting. This has caused concern about democratic accountability and we believe that access through live streaming will greatly enhance public interest and greater interest will create greater electoral participation.
Thirdly we believe that live streaming will make for the better delivery of business. If officers and councillors are under the constant gaze of the public then there is bound to be greater professionalism in how they all behave. It will also allow the public to be better able to judge how their elected representative is representing them.”
Sinn Féin: Councillor Stephen Burns : “I think we should just go for it. The sooner the better. Of course it will require a motion to be put before Council formally for this to go ahead.
“It is really a no brainer. Sinn Féin welcomes transparency in Council matters. It will be good for the public to see our meetings. If the Council has t0 go ‘into committee’, that is discuss matters of a confidential nature, then we can do what Belfast City Council does, just switch it off for that item on the agenda. We are fully in support of this move.”
UUP: Councillor Dessie Patterson: “Our party are happy with the new system in the chamber and have no issue with going live to the public. The present system in the chamber is fair as it allows speakers to go into a queuing system. I’m not sure if the public will find it all very interesting. Some of the committee meetings may be streamed too and of course this may well affect how the press report on these given they have already gone live.
“Overall I think this will make the councillors more effective and the business more fluent in the chamber. These meetings may be streamed during the day and not everyone will get a chance to see them live unless there is a playback system incorporated which may be technically possible.”