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The Shining

When lawmakers tackle Web cams, it’s time to watch out!

February 11, 2009, 12:00 am

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.

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