Santa Fe, 2059: A tour guide at New Mexico’s capitol building ushers a social studies class through room 317 of the Old Roundhouse.
There the group beholds the statue of “Lady Sunlight,” a life-sized likeness of Janice Arnold-Jones, the turn-of-the-century Republican legislator who, through civil disobedience, forced the New Mexico House of Representatives to begin broadcasting its meetings to the public.
In single-row fashion, the children shuffle past the figure, which is attired in a business suit and balances a laptop on the palm of one hand and a bulbous Web cam on the other. The guide explains how Rep. Arnold-Jones, R-Bernalillo, became so frustrated with the closed-door nature of the Legislature that, in the first days of the 2009 session, she launched her own streaming Web cam service.
“…and when Chairman Sandoval ordered her to turn the camera off, she refused,” the guide explains. “And that’s why we call it the ‘Web stream seen ’round the state.’”
Of course it remains to be seen how history will remember Arnold-Jones. But back in 2009, there is little question that Arnold-Jones sparked one of the most robust debates of the current legislative cycle regarding the interstices of open government, emergent technology and the rules of decorum.
Good government organizations use “sunlight” as the metaphor to describe laws and methods of opening the political process to the public in order to improve its influence and participation. By most measures, New Mexico’s lawmaking process is perpetually overcast: Crucial meetings between Senate and House members are closed to the public; invitation-only receptions for legislators run at breakfast, lunch and dinnertime almost every day of the session. New Mexico doesn’t limit campaign contributions and, as a result, corporations, lobbyists and the independently wealthy are often able to buy greater access to their lawmakers than the average constituent.
This year’s session opened with pay-to-play scandals emerging from the governor’s office and, though no wrongdoing has been revealed, the implications of backroom impropriety (not to mention daily headlines) are propelling ethics reform toward the top of the agenda. Legislators have introduced a variety of bills aimed at greater transparency: campaign contribution caps, new corporate reporting requirements, name tags for lobbyists.
But the first out of the gate was the debate over Web cams: New Mexico is the fifth largest state in the union and one of the last in the country to offer live Web broadcasts of public legislative proceedings—committee hearings and floor sessions—during which bills are debated and voted upon.
“In a free society, we expect open government and, now that we have the technology to put these public meetings online so everyone could see them, we should do that,” Common Cause Executive Director Steve Allen says. “We live in a very big state and not everyone has the luxury of spending a couple months in Santa Fe to observe these very important proceedings. Since we have the ability to give access to these proceedings online for very little money, this one’s a no-brainer. “
Arnold-Jones forced the House, the larger of the two legislative bodies, to take up the issue and the Republican caucus backed her up. Democrats weren’t vocally opposed to live Web cams in theory, but many were concerned with looking like, as Rep. Sheryl Stapleton, D-Bernalillo, put it, “buffoons.” The media was immediately enthralled with the drama that unfolded: a frenzied and often farcical ride during which legislators debated the nature of sight and interpretation like first-year film students and worried about their looks like America’s Next Top Model contestants.
In the end, a compromise emerged—and even Arnold-Jones can’t decide whether or not it was a victory.
I honestly believe, without hyperbole, that puppy cam is the greatest thing in the history of all things in time.—comment on BoingBoing.net
In November 2008, six newborn Shiba Inu puppies in a box in California became the stars of the most popular Web stream in the history of the Internet—the pups had more than 4 million viewers and all they had to do was sleep, whimper and scratch.
All legislators have to do is run the state and grapple with issues such as domestic partnerships, the death penalty and whether or not citizens should be allowed to purchase alcoholic energy drinks.
While they debate, state police watch every inch of the Capitol, from the Senate floor to the hidden chiropractic practice on the second floor. They use surveillance technology that would make even the most sophisticated casino eye-in-the-sky blink with jealousy. The joystick-controlled cameras can zoom in as close as the bristles of Rep. Paul Bandy’s, R-San Juan, mustache on the House floor to as far away as teenagers idling by the Cross of the Martyrs.
So why can’t there be the same system for the public?
“Good question. We all know that this could’ve been done, should’ve been done a long time ago,” Minority Whip Rep. Keith Gardner, R-Chaves, says during the first of a weekly Monday Morning Coffee with reporters he’s holding throughout the session. “This technology has existed for a long time. There’s no excuse for us to be one of the last states to do this. I mean, c’mon, we’ve wasted more money in the past two to four years for stuff that we shouldn’t have done.”
This session, responding to demands from her constituents, Arnold-Jones suited herself up with a new laptop, a consumer-grade Web camera, a Verizon wireless card and an account with the streaming site Mobulus. Then, during her first committee hearing—Taxation & Revenue—she began streaming (civicplaza.net/house.php) and didn’t stop—even when Chairman Rep. Edward Sandoval, D-Bernalillo, requested she do so. By the end of the meeting, she had logged nearly 100 viewers.
“I understand that it takes getting your legs sliced off to make any progress and that has happened,” Arnold-Jones says. “I’m not whining. You may not recognize this, but I’m really a rules person. I actually try to obey the rules until I can’t anymore.”
Arnold-Jones has a reputation for never backing down: In 2008, she publicly accused the New Mexico Republican Party of threatening her if she didn’t bow out of the District 1 congressional race. Not only had the House never had to deal with streaming Web video of its proceedings, it had no rules to address the issue. So, by the end of the day, House Speaker Ben Luján, D-Santa Fe—who also sits on Taxation & Revenue—had summoned the party leaders of both House caucuses, Rep. Thomas Taylor, R-San Juan, and Rep. W Ken Martinez, D-Cibola, to his office.
The House needed a rule to allow Arnold-Jones to stream the proceedings without breaking decorum; Martinez and Taylor would need to come up with one for the Rules & Order of Business Committee the next day.
In the meantime, the press—especially Las Cruces blogger Heath Haussamen—had already begun publishing histories of the Web cam battle, painting Luján as one of the villains—a characterization with which Luján later took issue during the rules committee.
“Actually, I didn’t say he personally opposed it,” Haussamen tells SFR. “I just said he had been involved with other leaders in killing it.”
It wasn’t the first time the Legislature had considered installing Web cameras. A few sessions earlier, it had appropriated $70,000 to install Web cameras to cover the floors. The Senate bought the cameras, installed them and then took them down again, blaming the budget crunch. The House, however, left its portion unspent until it finally expired last year.
Martinez, who ran against Luján for the speaker position in 2006 and lost, defends his former opponent. It wasn’t a matter of opposing Web cams, he tells SFR, but defending a strict political process—“introduce a resolution, take it to the rules committee, discuss it, come up with a solution”—that Arnold-Jones had transgressed.
“Referencing back to the process made it seem like hesitancy,” Martinez says. “I don’t think it was put in the process to kill it. I think it was put in the process because that’s what we do.”
And so, Martinez introduced a resolution allowing for live streaming with the permission of the speaker for streams of the floor and the permission of the committee chairman for streams during committees. The resolution also stated that chairmen have the responsibility to preserve order in committees “while maximizing the public’s ability to observe, report on and participate.”
The debate over the resolution in the rules committee zipped from epistemology, the study of knowledge, to computer science. Some asked why a rule was even necessary. After all, how is a member of the Legislature broadcasting video any different than a member of the press recording audio? Others argued it was time to pony up the cash and install Web cams once and for all.
Before long, the committee realized the issue was too large for a single meeting and Luján agreed to appoint a subcommittee on legislative web casting to study it further and report back. With Republicans hollering that the committee should be appointed immediately, the meeting adjourned. The story was on the Internet before legislators had even left the room.
There is no such thing as a neutral camera. The moment a choice is made as to how you frame a shot, you’re making a statement. Is it close-up? Is it wide? Is the light flattering? Do you include the guy at the end of the frame picking his nose? Every choice that you make denies the possibility of being neutral. —Jonathan Wacks, chairman of the Moving Image Arts program at the College of Santa Fe
A 1995 study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology found that 91 percent of 254 participants pick their noses. Forty-three percent admitted they pick their noses in public.
Apply the math to the Legislature and you’ve got 48 elected officials who can be caught on camera picking their noses.
Legislators did not specifically reference rhinotillexis (nose picking in clinician-speak) in their concerns over Web casting. But lawmakers repeatedly expressed general concern about video being used against them for political purposes.
Anyone who thinks video isn’t a weapon should remember Democrat Howard Dean or Republican George Allen, both of whom lost races after videos of slipups went viral. As far as nose picking goes: Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was caught doing it between espresso shots at a café and US Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., was captured digging deep while standing behind Barack Obama during a campaign speech.
Throughout the debates over Web cams, two distinct camps emerged among legislators: One group, mostly Republican, adamantly argued for immediate implementation of a live stream. The other group, mostly Democrats, said they weren’t opposed to the idea, per se, as long as protective measures were implemented.
As Luján put it during the first rules committee: “We need to make sure there are the necessary safeguards, that there is openness and transparency in a manner not to embarrass or use for political purpose against a single member on either side of the aisle.”
But it was Rep. Ray Begaye, D-San Juan, who laid it out plainly: “If I’m sleeping and I’m being recorded…it could be used for political gain by my opponent!”
The media has been embarrassing legislators for decades. Fifteen years after the fact, Stapleton is still furious at a KOAT channel 7 for using a still of her eating a sandwich on the floor. Gardner was perturbed last year when, during the special session, a daily paper ran a picture of him hunched over in pain during floor hearings. It wasn’t the state budget making him dyspeptic, as the caption implied, but a kidney stone. Rep. Al Park, D-Bernalillo, admits he has fallen asleep during those late-night debates toward the end of the session. Rep. Moe Maestas, D-Bernalillo, even has a strategy: Turn your back to the press gallery, then grab a few winks.
Begaye’s comment became the sound bite of the issue and the state Republican Party jumped on it, delivering mugs, coffee and creamer to Democratic members of the rules committee with the message, “WAKE UP! Vote YES on HR 2. Vote yes on transparency.”
Although Arnold-Jones decided not to attend any of the meetings, she stood up for Begaye, first excoriating the state party over the telephone then later telling constituents during her weekly Saturday open house that the press had mischaracterized his statement.
On the matter of partisan video, Arnold-Jones insists on her Web site: “Nothing shown or recorded on the Web cast will be used for political purposes or campaigns.” Martinez suggested her phrasing should serve as a guideline during rule making.
But no matter what rule is written, the camera will always be kinder to some politicians than others, Sundance and Academy award-winning filmmaker Wacks tells SFR.
“[If you mounted] a camera in one position in which it would always be the same, you could make the argument that that was neutral,” Wacks says. “But it depends on whether Ben Luján is sitting in the middle of the shot, whether he’s nicely lit, but [Rep.] Lucky Varela [D-Santa Fe] has a dark shadow. You can say it’s neutral, but a choice has been made.“
Thursday, Jan. 29, 10:05 am: I am watching you
Thursday, Jan. 29, 10:06 am: Smile—text message to this reporter from Santa Fe New Mexican reporter Steve Terrell as Terrell watches the Voters & Elections Committee Web cast.
The pixilated video frame on Arnold-Jones’ Web site shows Deputy Secretary of State Don Francisco Trujillo sitting at a table. Over the static-filled audio, he explains to the Voters & Elections Committee the various lessons the Bureau of Elections learned from the 2008 election. In the background, only two audience members are visible: this journalist and Rick Lass, an elections’ advocate from the nonprofit group Voting Matters. The journalist smiles.
The broadcasts from Arnold-Jones’ Web cam aren’t about to win an Emmy. But, in the grand history of the Internet, they aren’t the dullest feeds either.
The first live Web cam actually predates the World Wide Web by a year. In 1991, Cambridge University scientist Quentin Stafford-Fraser aimed a rudimentary digital camera at the computer science building’s coffee maker, set it to take pictures three times a minute and wired it through the network. Researchers on other floors wouldn’t have to climb up and down the stairs only to find an empty pot. The drip, drip of the CoffeeCam ran for 10 years.
It remains to be seen if Web cam coverage of the Legislature will be more useful. Matt Brix, policy director for the good government organization Center for Civic Policy, says his staff is already tuning into Arnold-Jones’ Web cast of the Voters & Elections Committee—and he’s pointing interested parties toward a recording of a verbal melee over ethics reform. But he’s paid to participate in the process; will the general public get on board?
“It all depends,” Brix says. “I suspect C-SPAN took a while to expand beyond just the people who go to DC all the time…But when gas prices are high during lean years or hot-button issues come up, I think a lot of people will want to see what the debate looks like.“
Gardner says he has already received e-mails and “thank-yous” from constituents in Roswell for fighting for Web cams.
“I’ve got constituents as far as five hours away in Lovington, New Mexico who are interested in what’s going on up here and they don’t have access,” Gardner says. “One of my biggest concerns in government is the apathy of the public and this is one more way to take away the excuse, ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t have time to go to Santa Fe.’”
Haussamen grew up in Santa Fe and says he was shocked when he moved to Las Cruces to discover the disconnect between the citizenry in the south and their elected leaders.
“I think Santa Fe likes it that way,” he says. “By being less accessible, the Legislature and state government can be controlled by the powers that be. So it’s about making the Legislature more accessible to citizens all over the state, which I think will also help change the culture of secrecy.”
Rep. Debbie Rodella, D-Rio Arriba, adds that live coverage will become an important curriculum tool in schools in her district, which extends from Española to the Colorado border.
“Students are very interested in the legislative process,” Rodella, who was appointed by Luján to the Web cam subcommittee, says. “Sometimes, due to financial constraints, our schools can’t afford to have the students travel all the way here to watch us in action. I think it will probably be something that people in the rural communities that I represent will certainly take advantage of.”
And then there’s the media—whether it’s Haussamen in Las Cruces or Terrell watching from the press room one floor down from the Voters & Elections Committee.
Corey: “Marriage is not necessarily a good thing,” Norma says. DANGER! PELIGRO! TRUTH SPOKEN AT GOVERNMENT HEARING.
barbwire: Don’t eat the shrimp!—snippet from Jan. 29 live-blog coverage of the joint Senate committee debate on domestic partnerships
It’s the second meeting of the subcommittee on Web cams, and Haussamen can only make out Martinez and two representatives from the Legislative Council Service. They’re sitting at a glass table in a very cramped conference room and, from time to time, two or three of the other five members lean into the frame. In the background, an Ansel Adams print hangs on the wall.
What Haussamen can’t see is there are at least seven members of the media squished into the room, not including a hand holding a shotgun microphone through the open door and two photographers taking turns squeezing in to snap a few shots. One television anchor sits in a chair playing with her hair, another reporter perches on a cabinet, trying not to knock over a Web camera, which in turn trails a cord to the floor where a blogger from the New Mexico Independent (former SFR food writer Gwyneth Doland) sits splay-legged on the floor covering the hearing live.
“Well, it was amateur video and audio,” Haussamen tells SFR via Facebook chat. “I will admit it was cool to be able to get my question answered in a government meeting 300 miles away, courtesy of my colleague and her Web cam.”
The media immediately became obsessed with the Web cam issue, in part because of the personalities involved, but also because implementing live Web cams would mark a significant step forward in the battle for open government.
“I asked myself: Am I interested in this just because it would help me?” Haussamen says. “And I realized that, if it would help me more easily access my government as a journalist and taxpaying citizen of the state of New Mexico, it would help pretty much everyone in the state.”
But the story didn’t just attract the media to cover it; it spurred the media to expand their own techniques: Suddenly it became clear there was a market for this Web stuff.
From the House press gallery, SFR covered the opening ceremonies of the Legislature using instant blogging software (CoveritLive) and used the software again to cover a hearing on the death penalty that had reached capacity more than a half hour before the committee convened. Later, the New Mexico Independent followed suit with live-blogging software to cover the Senate’s joint committee hearing on domestic partnerships and finally the Web cam subcommittee itself.
In the meantime, KUNM, the University of New Mexico’s radio station, began offering live streaming audio of the Senate floor. New Mexico Legislative Reports, a private newspaper service that has offered live and archived audio recordings of the floor for six years, launched a free version of its service, lawmakerslive.com.
“The handwriting was pretty much on the wall,” New Mexico Legislative Reports Publisher Beverly Garcia says. “If you’re a private business and you’ve expended all this money to provide this service and the state itself is about to say it’s going to open it up, do you sit back on your hands? No, you move and you take action.”
The first day, the stream received more than 500 listeners, Garcia says. Her company is looking at offering video next—though she wouldn’t mind securing a contract from the state to offer the service to the public.
That all these developments happened within two weeks is incredible, Haussamen says.
“I went from having no options to having several,” he says. “I had to set up my laptop on my desk as a second computer for the session. I use that one to keep all the audio and video feeds open, so they don’t take up space and memory on my other computer, where I do my work.”
With all these new streams going at once, a state-run feed sure sounds redundant, Garcia says.
“After seeing KUNM and us, they’re still going to go out and spend thousands recreating the same thing that’s already been in place for a number of years?” Garcia says. “As far as I know, we’re in a tight budget crunch.”
It’s the year 2059: Instead of trading barbed arguments and veiled insults, legislators wage cross-committee battle with streaming video: eye for an eye, Web cam for a Web cam. In fact, everyone in the audience has brought a Web camera, too, so they can zoom in and twist the images of their lawmakers. It’s all-out Web cam chaos, and nothing ever gets done because adjusting the Web cam’s focus has become the focus of committee hearings.
Or at least that’s the future Martinez suggested might develop if the rules committee failed to pass version two of his resolution. Some members were still uncomfortable with the idea of giving committee chairmen the sole authority to ban or allow live streams.
“What if we had dueling Web cams?” Martinez posed to the second and final rules committee on the subject.
After two subcommittee meetings, the only difference between the first draft of the resolution and the second is that it gave the Legislative Council Service the authority to begin a pilot program with audio streams from the floor and a handful of committee rooms. The streams will be live and not archived, Martinez said, because it would cause a public records nightmare.
In the end, the resolution left the committee with only one dissenting vote: Stapleton, who felt like the whole thing was a waste of time.
“My 18-year-old son can come in here with his camera and take videos and pictures,” she told SFR immediately after the meeting. “Anybody could come in here without having permission and do it. Just because a representative decides to do it publicly doesn’t mean we should pass a law.”
Indeed, Rep. Joseph Cervantes, D-Doña Ana, tried to clarify whether permission could be received verbally or if it had to be in writing. At the same time, Cervantes was filming the committee from his laptop—without asking permission from the committee chairman.
Republicans were not impressed with the outcome. Rep. Kathy McCoy, R-Bernalillo, called it a “pseudo-victory.” Martinez told the committee that in coming sessions the House can install a camera capable of zooming in on every face on the House floor; McCoy says she would’ve been happy with a single, static camera in the meantime.
“If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing right,” Martinez tells SFR.
But if there’s already free audio available online, what did the new process actually achieve for New Mexico’s citizens?
“It makes a policy that audio and video [are] allowed on the floor and in committees, where that wasn’t quite clear before,” Martinez says, pointing out the rule passed unanimously on the House floor. “From a policy point of view, it’s a huge step; from a planning-tool point of view, it’s a huge step. It’s hard to steer back once you point it in that direction.”
But for Arnold-Jones, there really wasn’t much of a difference; now she’s officially allowed to do what she was doing already without a rule.
“I was hoping they would be a little more ‘proactive,’ but we got a big step, don’t you think?” Arnold-Jones says wryly. “I am not satisfied. The technology is too simple, and we’re making it much more complicated than it is and than is has to be…The truth is, if you’ve got a computer, you can just plug in a camera. What’s the big deal?” SFR
Santa Fe, 2059: A tour guide at New Mexico’s capitol building ushers a social studies class through room 317 of the Old Roundhouse.