Aspen council ponders whether to air more meetings on TV |

Aspen council ponders whether to air more meetings on TV

Carolyn Sackariason
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN ” At the urging of a private resident to tape and rebroadcast informal City Council meetings on public access television, elected officials now are considering the idea.

The concept created some political controversy last week when Marilyn Marks paid GrassRoots TV $300 to tape the council’s Tuesday work session, at which a financing bond to pay for affordable housing was to be discussed.

Marks’ move was met with anger and frustration by some council members who said they were being forced to make a policy decision without proper public discussion.

A special meeting convened Monday in which three council members were in attendance, Councilmen J.E. DeVilbiss, Steve Skadron and Jack Johnson all supported taping and broadcasting work sessions as a way to make city government more accessible to the public.

Last week’s meeting became extremely heated and has been called one of the biggest emotional outbursts by a council that local political observers have seen. Marks received heavy criticism from some council members, who made it clear that they didn’t agree with her tactics.

DeVilbiss apologized on Monday for remaining quiet during the argumentative meeting that took place last week.

“I was completely taken aback for what happened that day and I’m ashamed for remaining mute,” he said. “I am sorry for what happened.”

The verbal lashing prompted Marks two days later to resign from the Citizen Budget Task Force and its housing subcommittee, which were created by the council to oversee financial matters in City Hall and its affordable housing program.

DeVilbiss asked Marks to reconsider her resignation and Johnson, who said he couldn’t apologize to Marks, also asked her to remain on the task force.

Johnson said he regrets addressing the issue when he was angry and upset. He also said he regrets not making it clearer to Marks and other citizens that it’s a larger issue than just accessibility ” taping unofficial meetings is a policy change that needs to be discussed and decided by elected officials, not by a member of the public.

Marks accepted DeVilbiss’ apology and said she was merely trying to encourage more public participation and access by having the meeting taped. She has asked for the council to consider taping all of the meetings in the past but the issue has never risen to the level of discussion as it has in the last week. She added she was not attempting to threaten the council or force its hand.

But Johnson said Marks’ desire to have the meetings taped for better public access was couched in an insinuation that the council was guilty of a lack of transparency and good governance. He added that he doesn’t like the adversarial relationship he and Marks have developed.

“I wish I could fully apologize to you but I can’t,” Johnson told Marks on Monday. “I don’t believe I attacked you … I approached it head on.”

The council will consider the matter again during its regular meeting on June 24. Options include paying an additional $3,000 to have Grassroots TV tape and broadcast the rest of the scheduled meetings in 2008.

There may be scheduling problems on some Monday nights when the Snowmass Town Council meets, or when the Pitkin County commissioners meet on Tuesdays. The city of Aspen is in a contract with those two governments to share the costs equally for the same amount of air time on channel 11, which is devoted to government meetings. The contract between the three entities may have to be renegotiated, officials said.

When there are scheduling difficulties, Aspen City Council meetings could be aired on channel 12, which is designed for public access. However, having the council use that channel would take prime time availability away from the public and would require technological assistance from Comcast.

The city of Aspen is about to begin streaming council meetings and work sessions on the web. Steps could be taken to make all of the meetings live, officials said.

Work sessions often become meetings when important policy decisions are made and council directs staff to implement them. And that concerns some council members because the public sometimes is unaware of their importance.

“We are making decisions in work sessions and calling them directions to staff but you know we are making decisions,” DeVilbiss said.