TV turns City Council meetings into talk marathons

April 10, 1993|By Sandy Banisky | Sandy Banisky,Staff Writer Staff writer James M. Coram contributed to this article.

The Baltimore City Council was deep into nearly an hour's worth of talk on a resolution that wasn't even up for a vote. The clock was ticking. The television cameras were taking in every word.

And that, 3rd District Councilman Wilbur E. Cunningham concluded, was the problem.

"I'm not sure why we're discussing this," Mr. Cunningham said testily into the microphone at last week's meeting when he finally got his turn to speak. "I suggest maybe we wouldn't have this conversation if we didn't have so many television cameras in the chamber right now."

Once upon a time, way back before Baltimore had cable television, your ordinary Baltimore City Council meeting would run about an hour. With any luck, the members could do the people's business and go home even earlier. Former City Council President Walter S. Orlinsky used to brag he'd completed a session in eight minutes.

No more. Today, with Cable 44 on the council floor, two-hour meetings have become the norm.

"Good government," says 2nd District Councilman Anthony J. Ambridge. "A valuable tool," says Councilman Lawrence Bell of the 4th District.

But other council members say government's no better since cable arrived four years ago. It's just the quality of grandstanding that's improved.

"We've always had three or four individuals who like attention, who used to get up and talk five minutes," says 1st District Councilman Nicholas D'Adamo. "Now they talk 20 minutes."

"The council has become a show," says Mr. Cunningham.

"Get the hook," said 3rd District Councilman Martin "Mike" Curran.

At last week's meeting, a dozen council members spent 45 minutes offering their opinions on a resolution introduced by Councilman Martin O'Malley of the 3rd District, a resolution that asked city finance officials to explore alternatives to an increase in the piggyback tax.

Council members, Mr. Cunningham says, had no reason to spend so much time on the measure that night. They'll get to speak at a public hearing, again when the resolution is sent back to the floor and once more when it comes up for a final vote.

So why, Mr. Cunningham asks, did so many people last Monday debate the measure endlessly?

Some competitive talkers, he says, have dropped the pretense of addressing their colleagues and speak directly into the camera. "It's done deliberately to impress constituents," Mr. Cunningham complains.

Unfair, says Mr. Bell. "Bill, of all people, has done his share of talking. . . . I think it makes for a lively discussion and debate and I always feel personally that's preferable to very quiet meetings where people end up discussing the issues anyway but they do it behind closed doors."

For all the council members' interest in cameras, is anyone out there watching?

Council President Mary Pat Clarke says she knows her mother-in-law is, because she reminds the president to wear bright colors on the air. And constituents say they watch the meetings and seem better informed for it, she adds.

There are no Neilsen ratings, no Arbitron surveys for government cable. Mr. Curran, the council's liaison to the Mayor's Office of Cable and Communications, says a survey by that agency showed 27,000 to 33,000 people watch the council meeting broadcast on Monday nights.

The commercial stations would consider that a dismal number in a city with a population of 736,000. But the viewership is vocal enough and the lens is seductive enough to assure that more council members stand to command precious camera time.

"I was opposed to it at the beginning, because of the expense," says Mr. Ambridge. "But after hearing from people who like it, I've changed my mind."

"Some people like to see elected officials give speeches," says Mr. Bell.

Not always, according to Council Vice President Vera P. Hall. "The camera is a temptation for people to say things just to say things," she says.

Even the skeptics in the council agree that informing the public is important. It's not cable television that's the problem, they say. It's the talkative politicians.

The city's legislators apparently aren't the only ones susceptible to fits of televised talking. The Howard County Council, like the city, broadcasts its meetings and hearings live -- and the meetings drag on as members explain their votes to a nearly empty room.

In the city, the longer meetings so frustrated some City Council members that they began talking about scheduling council meetings every other Monday night, instead of weekly. The free Monday nights could be designated for public hearings on important legislation.

Nothing doing, says Council President Clarke. "We do have business to conduct on a weekly basis," she says. "Especially in these times of change, needs arise. We have to get together and communicate."

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