With cable television access to local government information now more expensive to obtain, it is more important than ever that residents be able to view their government in action on their home computers. But not every North Pinellas community is making the effort.
Local government television channels have been around for years and have developed a devoted following. People who subscribed to basic cable from Bright House Networks could watch their local city council meetings on Channel 15, Pinellas County Commission meetings on Channel 18, and the Pinellas School Board on Channel 14. Sometimes those channels also showed other government meetings and other public programming.
But a few months ago the area's primary cable franchise, Bright House Networks, moved those government channels out of the basic cable tier and into the tier of digital channels above 600. City governments got Channel 615, the county government was assigned 622 and the school district got 614. Bright House basic cable subscribers could no longer see those channels. They either had to subscribe to digital cable at a much higher price or pay for a cable box that would allow them to access the government channels.
Bright House was broadly criticized for the move. People are watching their pennies, and paying more for cable just to access government channels was a distasteful option for some.
However, depending on where you live, your home computer can replace your television for viewing government programming.
You can watch the meetings live on your computer through streaming video. If you miss seeing the meeting live, you can watch an archived video of it. You can even link to particular items on the published agenda if you don't want to watch the whole meeting. You can replay parts that are of particular interest to you. You can even click a link to see the documents and other backup material that the elected officials are viewing on the dais.
Pinellas County government got on the streaming video bandwagon early, making not just County Commission meetings viewable on a computer, but also other meetings of countywide interest such as the Metropolitan Planning Organization and the Pinellas Planning Council.
North Pinellas city governments jumped on, too. Clearwater, Largo and Safety Harbor made their meetings available through streaming video. Dunedin did as well, shortly after the arrival of a new city manager interested in making the city's Web site a more effective portal to city government.
But if you live in Tarpon Springs or Oldsmar, you are out of luck. Neither city provides streaming video of local government meetings. Their meetings are available only on television.
In the past, Tarpon Springs officials have shown little interest in providing streaming video service, which is surprising given that city's apparent interest in keeping up with its neighbors. But Tarpon Springs' city Web site also is sadly lacking compared with other local government sites. A new city manager hopefully will be interested in bringing that city's Web technology up to speed.
Oldsmar was the last of the North Pinellas cities to televise its City Council meetings, so it is perhaps not surprising that it has lagged on offering streaming video, too. Oldsmar has recently improved its city Web site; hopefully, streaming video will not be far behind.
Once a local government has acquired the equipment and staffing to televise its meetings and has an operational Web site, it is neither difficult nor extremely expensive to make the leap to streaming video.
Providing this free opportunity for their residents to view the city decisionmaking process from the comfort of their own homes should be a priority for Tarpon Springs and Oldsmar.