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The Shining

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

February 11, 2009, 12:00 am

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.

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