The county is spending an estimated $1 million on a public access TV facility in Glen Burnie. Check your cable TV bill and look at the PEG access fee – mine is 98 cents per month. This facility, which uses only a small fraction of total PEG (public, educational and government) funds, is supposed to enhance civic participation and public access to information. But you’d never know it based on how the county has gone about administering its PEG funds.
Do any readers have any idea what I’m talking about? Probably not. This is a classic insider job. Way back in 1999 the county hired a fancy consultant to do a needs assessment for what would turn into a $5 million PEG access facility budget, including a minimum of four cable TV channels and broadcast links to those channels from dozens of sites throughout the county.
Two public meetings were held and 20 people showed up. Since then, anyone with any concerns about the process is told: “Well, we offered the public a chance to participate, and no one took advantage of it.”
The PEG access budget is threatening to turn into a farce. The school system recently spent $270,000 for a state-of-the-art educational access TV studio, and then designed the system so the public couldn’t watch its “open meetings.”
Think of C-SPAN, and you’ll see how far the county has fallen short. More than 4,000 school systems, most with far smaller budgets and population than Anne Arundel County (which has the 42nd-largest student population in the United States), now televise their meetings.
The county government currently has a de facto monopoly on TV coverage within the county, and it must be forced to exercise that power responsibly. Specifically, PEG access needs to be turned over to an independent board, an action permissible under the county’s PEG access ordinance. Otherwise, it will continue its present course of becoming a public relations and information technology slush fund. This is a great misfortune because the county desperately needs C-SPAN-like coverage of public affairs.
One place to begin is with the Glen Burnie public access center. The county should hold a genuine public meeting to display the facility plans and discuss the future of PEG access. Construction bids are due Aug. 1.
The county also should start looking into setting up an independent board. One idea would be to put the school system’s Citizen Advisory Committees in charge of the educational access channel.
Every school in the county has a CAC consisting of parents and their elected leaders, which is mandated by state law to provide policy feedback to the Board of Education. The Maryland legislature could therefore consider incorporating CAC control into these statutes, specifically designing the educational access channel to empower these education-oriented citizens.
The county’s own PEG access ordinance, passed without fanfare in August 2000, says it all: “The County intends to ensure that PEG access facilities are managed in the public interest and that programming using public access channels is open to all residents and available for all forms of public expression, community information, and debate of public issues.”
Admittedly, this is all boilerplate PEG language, and I doubt even a single County Council member thought about what it meant or read the fine print. Nevertheless, it’s time for the county to take its own laws seriously. This means setting up independent governance and mandating better information disclosure.
The writer, a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation, was chairman of a task force on information technology and democracy for Vermont’s secretary of state before moving to Anne Arundel County.
Source: Snider, J.H., “Independent board should regulate PEG access,” Capital, July 27, 2003.