ST. PETERSBURG — For the second time in a year, the City Council has expanded television coverage of its meetings to make them more accessible to the public.
In an unusual split, members voted 6-2 Thursday to televise meetings held by the "Committee of the Whole" — a board composed of the entire council that meets irregularly to discuss pressing issues — and all workshops.
"This is really about transparency," said council member Karl Nurse, who proposed the expanded coverage. "It's not that complicated. The fundamental job of government TV is to show the decisionmaking of the city."
Council Chairwoman Leslie Curran and Jeff Danner voted against the move, saying it wasn't necessary or practical.
"I know the (St. Petersburg) Times would love to have everything televised and everything at 6 p.m.," Curran said. "If there's five of us at a (neighborhood) meeting, should that be televised?"
"I don't know where you stop," Danner said.
Nurse persuaded the council last year to televise meetings of three other committees that regularly discuss topics like city finances, infrastructure and housing. It was a break from the secrecy that characterized the administration of then-Mayor Rick Baker. Yet even with those meetings televised, members were still discussing major topics in meetings that weren't broadcast.
Since January, under the leadership of Curran, TV cameras were off when council members discussed adding digital billboards to city streets, banning street solicitation and spending $74 million to replace the police station.
In June, they ended a regularly televised meeting to convene another meeting — held in a smaller room where the TV cameras weren't in use — to discuss budget issues, such as whether to close city pools and eliminate a fire engine. Because of a glitch, notification of the meeting wasn't posted on the city's website like other public meetings.
After members of the Council of Neighborhood Associations objected to closing that meeting and the TV blackout of the other meetings, Nurse, a former CONA president, moved to televise more.
But Danner said much of what the council discusses is so premature, it hardly rises to a level of public importance.
"I'm not sure if the community benefits on a discussion on a police station that we may or may not build yet," said Danner. "I don't think the public is excluded because that's Step 1 in a 10-step process."
The city TV station's call letters are WSPF-TV. It appears on Channel 35 on broadcast TV, Channel 615 on Bright House Networks, Channel 20 on Verizon FiOs, and Channel 15 on Knology Cable. The station operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week and produces an average of 480 hours of original programming a year. It reaches a potential of 120,000 households. About 13 city meetings are broadcast each month.
Mayor Bill Foster can choose what appears on the channel or, according to City Attorney John Wolfe, whether to have one at all. Foster said Thursday he'd leave it to the council to determine whether they wanted to televise the meetings — with one caveat.
"If you're going to do it, we will do it right," Foster told members. "We won't do it halfway. We will have a quality product for people to watch. It's going to be a product that we're proud of."
That requirement could have undermined Nurse's request because it made covering meetings more expensive.
"We're entrusted to be the stewards of the taxpayer," said council member Wengay "Newt" Newton. "I don't want this mandate for first rate quality to be the reason we don't do it because of the expense."
But it was unclear just how expensive it would be to add increase coverage. Earlier in the meeting, the city's marketing and communications director, Beth Herendeen, estimated it would cost $200 an hour to televise the meetings. About half of the cost was staff time, Herendeen said.
But council member Steve Kornell said staff was already getting paid. Herendeen agreed, saying the real cost was that staff would not be able to work on other projects.
"So it's not really $200 an hour," Kornell said.
Maureen Stafford, a CONA representative, said the extra TV time makes it easier for the average resident to understand how city government works.
"Times are tough," Stafford said. "People have two to three jobs. They can't come down here and follow each meeting. This levels the playing field. It's a very good decision."
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or firstname.lastname@example.org.