A government geek who hoped to flip open her laptop and watch the Maryland State Ethics Commission in action on Thursday was in for a disappointment.
The panel, which met at 9 a.m. in its office near the State House, has never live-streamed its meetings.
Critics say requiring the public to attend board and commission meetings in person makes it all-but-impossible for time-pressed and far-flung citizens to be full participants in their government — particularly during a pandemic.
“Maryland is a backwater when it comes to government openness,” said longtime journalist Tom Sherwood, political analyst for the “Politics Hour” on WAMU (88.5 FM), the NPR station in the Washington, D.C., region.
“It seems to not take it seriously. I think the state would be embarrassed — both the Democrats who control the legislature and the governor,” Sherwood said.
In an email, Jennifer Allgair, the Maryland State Ethics Commission’s new executive director, said the panel held its meeting “at 45 Calvert St in Room 164, which is the large training room. Since it was a larger room and extra seating was provided for members of the public (spaced 6 ft apart), the Commission did not have a livestream for the public portion of the meeting.”
Allgair did not respond to follow-up questions about why the panel — which enforces the state’s codes of conduct for elected and appointed officials — doesn’t make use of technology that has been widely embraced by Congress, local governments and the private sector.
The Ethics Commission is far from alone.
• The Maryland Open Meetings Compliance Board, which meets once a year, has never live-streamed a meeting. Administrator Janice Clark said the panel will air its 2020 meeting, set for Sept. 14, via Microsoft Teams and that the public will be able to watch.
• The State Senate does not live-stream its floor sessions, but it does stream audio. Staffers scrambled to install temporary cameras in March, when the public was barred from the State House for public health reasons, to avoid criticism that they were meeting in secret. A pilot program is set to begin in 2021 that would live-stream some Senate sessions.
• The House of Delegates live-streamed many of its floor sessions in 2020, a first for the General Assembly. House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) chose the days the cameras would be turned on. The House streams audio of its floor sessions whenever lawmakers convene.
• For many years, staffers for Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) pulled the plug on the live-stream of his news conferences whenever he engaged in Q&A with reporters. The practice ended when the novel coronavirus hit the state.
• In pre-COVID Maryland, news crews were barred from using cameras in courtrooms, even though the public was allowed to walk in off the street and observe. Critics see a double-standard here, one designed to shield judges from public scrutiny.
• Despite a 2019 law requiring the Maryland Board of Elections to live-stream its meetings, many of the panel’s sessions were audio-only. Sen. Cheryl C. Kagan (D-Montgomery), a longtime critic of the panel, called the sessions “a disaster,” because audio was frequently muffled and it was difficult to know who was talking. She filed a complaint with the Open Meetings Compliance Board and the BOE resumed its live stream.
Several of the elections board’s taped sessions appear to have begun in the middle of the session, with random people discussing unidentified proposals.
“That’s probably because staff forgot to hit the start button,” Kagan said. “They’re not tech experts.”
“It’s a hot mess,” Kagan said.
Earlier this year the General Assembly approved and Hogan signed the Maryland State Agency Transparency Act. It requires the the Maryland Transportation Authority, Maryland Public Service Commission, Maryland Stadium Authority, Maryland State Board of Elections and the Emergency Number Systems Board to live stream their meetings and post recordings online, effective Oct. 1.
Kagan said she is considering a bill for the 2021 session that goes even further.
“Any meeting that you should be able to walk into, you should be able to watch online,” she said. “The pandemic has caused us to think more broadly.”
Kagan also believes boards and commissions should be required to post meeting documents next to the live feed, so the public can follow complex discussions in real time.
Given advances in technology, Del. Alfred C. Carr Jr. (D-Montgomery) said “there are very few excuses” not to live-stream.
“There are a lot of governmental meetings that are now happening virtually, on a conference call or on a Zoom call,” he said. “It’s not difficult to make that accessible to the public.”
Carr said the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission didn’t live-stream its session until it received a written request from state legislators. “The public expects all these governmental meetings to be accessible, and so does the press.”
Gunita Singh, who tracks openness issues for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said it’s “critically important” that boards and commissions maximize access.
“We very much need to be leveraging technology in order to facilitate the public’s right to know,” she said. “We need to be making it easier, and not harder, to keep tabs on state and local government.”
Some boards haven’t needed a legislative mandate.
The Maryland Board of Public Works has live-streamed its meetings since 2010, according to Executive Secretary John T. Gontrum. And the Board of Revenue Estimates makes real-time video of its meetings public as well, according to Susan O’Brien, spokeswoman for Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D).
It has taken the legislature 40 years to catch up to the United States Congress, which airs gavel-to-gavel coverage of its floor proceedings on C-SPAN.
The Senate’s new president, Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City), has committed to pulling back the curtains.
“I know personally that President Ferguson is deeply committed to transparent policy-making, including technology upgrades,” said Sen. Jeff Waldstreicher (D-Montgomery). “It’ll allow Marylanders to see the contrast between how the federal government works and how the state government works.”
Hogan’s team now live-streams his media events from start to finish, though he is the only governor in the Mid-Atlantic not to take questions from off-site reporters. The governors of Pennsylvania, Delaware and Virginia and the mayor of Washington, D.C., allow reporters to ask questions by phone.
“He seems to have all the time in the world when a national cable television show calls him,” said Sherwood. “But he doesn’t have time for the homegrown media of Maryland.”
By Bruce DePuyt