Trustee Talk Issue 5: Broadcasting Board Meetings
My board is considering televising our meetings- what should we take into account before making this decision?
Broadcasting board meetings has advantages and drawbacks. In the absence of state laws that require broadcasting, the board should carefully consider the pros and cons of broadcasting meetings before making a voluntary commitment.
Should the board decide to broadcast meetings, there are a variety of different methods through which board meeting footage can be shared with the community. In today's world of internet access and social media we all need to be cognizant that attendees can easily record meetings using their own handheld devices and post the recordings online through websites such as YouTube and Vimeo.
The following lays out the broadcasting and recording options for boards considering making live or prerecorded footage of their meetings available to the public:
The Pros of Broadcasting
On the positive side, the broadcasting of meetings can increase transparency and make the business of the board more accessible to those who are unable to attend meetings. Not everyone has the luxury or flexibility to attend meetings during the day or evening. There are increasingly more demands on our time and by recording board meetings and allowing the public access, we can create a digital library for busy members of the community to view at their convenience.
For college faculty and staff, members of the community, and the media covering the work of the board, online recordings of board meetings can be a way to increase the engagement of different constituencies. Interim Chancellor Larry Skogen of the North Dakota University System told us that "the news media is appreciative" of the system's board meeting webcasts, with the recordings serving as a useful and easy tool to view board proceedings. Dr. Skogen recommended that colleges broadcasting their meetings should "institutionalize" the process, using the same people and equipment to record each meeting.
Broadcasting can counteract geographic distance and isolation, and strengthen communications across campuses. Multi-site colleges and districts and statewide systems can benefit from broadcasting to all sites. This reinforces the "one college" identity. Televising board meetings also reinforces the public's "right to know" and the board's commitment to conduct business under the "sunshine laws."
Cons and Considerations
The board should remember that there is a certain level of trust, even dignity, inherent within traditional board meetings. Broadcasting meetings can potentially alter this general atmosphere and cause changes in behavior. A board meeting is a business meeting of the board meant to carry out the governing body's fiduciary and stewardship responsibilities. There is sanctity to the proceedings, and trustees should strive to preserve this spirit of respect, informative debate, and trust during meetings which are broadcast.The risk of damaging this atmosphere is enough to dissuade many boards and presidents from broadcasting.
College of DuPage (Illinois) President Robert Breuder, for example, shared that "After 34 years as President, I would lean in favor of not broadcasting board meetings," in part because "The challenging behavior exhibited by some meeting participants can be exacerbated by broadcasting."
Some people are inclined to behave differently in front of a camera, oftentimes unaware that they are doing so.The board should be vigilant of changes in behavior among its trustees or the audience, which in extreme cases can include intimidation and grandstanding by trustees, staff, or even members of the community.
Trustees, staff, and members of the public who may be predisposed to taking control of a meeting to shift its focus entirely to their own opinions could be further incentivized to do so if the meeting is broadcast to a wider audience. To reduce the chances of such grandstanding, a board chair must take an active role in following protocols and procedures during the meetings to keep the proceedings focused on the agenda. In other words, the board chair must be ready to use the gavel as needed to keep order and maintain the proper flow of the agenda.
Other governing bodies, such as town councils, sometimes struggle with elected officials using broadcast meetings as opportunities to make electoral stump speeches rather than engage in substantive work. The board chair and each member of the board must prevent the college's broadcast meetings from falling into a similar pattern, and ensure that the meetings are dedicated to college business.
Broadcasting meetings can also have the opposite effect on participation. The knowledge that the proceedings are being broadcast can often intimidate those into silence who would otherwise speak up. The board should consider this potential impact on participation when deciding whether to broadcast its meetings. While broadcasting meetings can potentially showcase the positive work of the college and the board, they also could cause problems if false claims are made during meetings or if comments are taken out of context. Footage from a board meeting can "go viral" on the internet, or the board can appear to be a "rubber stamp" if there is no background provided to viewers on the board's actions. The board should proactively address these potential pitfalls by establishing new training for board members and college staff. This training should cover how to handle controversial statements made by trustees, staff, or members of the public during a meeting which is broadcast and review board meeting protocols and procedures to ensure that meetings can be understood by viewers unacquainted with the board's practices. Providing information on legal guidelines and procedures that must be adhered to by the board by posting them at the beginning of the meeting or having a reference to more information on the website may be helpful to the audience.
The board must also consider the costs involved with broadcasting. Whether the college already has the equipment needed for broadcasting or if it must hire an outside contractor or purchase new equipment can substantially increase expenditures.
The board may need to update bylaws or board procedures to permit broadcasting. The board should also review its meeting guidelines and procedures to ensure recording is permissible and that meetings stay on schedule, whether they are live or recorded. Following Robert's Rules of Order will keep meetings on track. Further, the board should understand and follow any state laws applicable to recording board meetings.
In making the decision whether to broadcast board meetings, the board should remain focused on community expectations. It must ask itself whether its broadcast meetings would meet these expectations and ultimately benefit the local community, or whether the risk of broadcasting is greater than the potential benefits. By doing so, the board can make an informed decision on whether broadcasting its meetings is the right step for the college.
Disclaimer: This newsletter is offered for general informational purposes only. It is not offered as and does not constitute legal advice.
Do YOU have a Question for us? Email your question to: Norma Goldstein