Baltimore City Council Web site likely to begin operating today $150,000 high-tech system criticized as unnecessary

October 02, 1998|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

Baltimore City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III calls the council's new $150,000 high-tech information system a revolutionary step in public access -- one that soon will give the entire world the ability see the council's meetings live over the Internet.

The system is part of Bell's effort to bolster the council's use of technology and to make it more independent of the city's executive branch in its ability to deliver information to the public.

The City Council Web site, at www.baltimorecitycouncil.com, is expected to be completed today, and the live broadcasts of council meetings are scheduled to begin Oct. 12 over the Internet.

But Bell already is under fire for spending money for services that Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III, who runs the city's cable channel, says he could have provided. In addition, Henson says the city's existing Web site could have been expanded to handle the council's needs.

"We could probably have taken that same money and fixed up a couple of recreation centers," Henson said. "It sounds like a redundancy."

Bell defended the purchases as a cost-saving measure that will cut the number of people needed to produce the broadcasts of council meetings while bringing the council into the computer age.

"I really view these expenditures as an investment," Bell said. "We want to lead the way to being accessible to the public."

Use of air time on the city's cable channel is free to the council, but Henson wanted to charge the council $1,600 a week in production fees. Bell argues that the fees are exorbitant, and he decided to seek other ways to produce broadcasts of council meetings.

The council bought state-of-the-art digital cameras that allow broadcast over cable TV and the Internet. The council also purchased video equipment capable of such special effects as making it appear as though the council chamber is on fire or making council members appear as cartoon characters over the television.

"Six months ago, this was stone knives and bearskins," said William B. Henry II, a government consultant who peeked into the control room during this week's council meeting to see the equipment in operation. "This is 21st century. This is astounding."

Bell said he has wanted to improve the council's technology since he became president. The dispute with Henson a year ago brought more urgency, he said.

And clearly, the dispute with Henson over the cable fees remains a sore point with Bell. During Monday night's council meeting, he made the point that anyone can see the meetings, "even if you LTC don't have cable."

The council's new equipment also will be an important benefit to Bell and other council members during an election year that is expected to have a highly competitive mayoral race.

Bell plans to use the system to hold live chats on the Internet, during which people viewing the city Web site will be able to see the council president as he answers their questions.

The council's Web site already has biographies of council members, and today it will begin including bills and meeting agendas.

"We're supposed to be cutting edge," Bell said. "Eventually the information technology revolution should take over the whole city government."

Pub Date: 10/02/98

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