COMMENTARY: More than two years ago, NMPolitics.net started following and documenting our advocacy work for more transparency of the Hobbs City Commission – specifically, that meetings would be broadcast on the web and archived for ubiquitous access. The City of Hobbs relented to our pleas, and last August, webcasting of meetings went live – and not just live, but archived, too!
That Hobbs residents can now watch online their elected officials doing the important work of the people’s business is a big accomplishment. Though I wish we could pull out the party hats to celebrate the upcoming one-year anniversary of webcasting, our beloved portal to remotely watch government at work is already under threat of termination.
Earlier this year, commissioners and city management shared the results of a city survey, which included questions regarding residents’ use of the webcasting service. According to a News-Sun article about the survey results, about 68.5 percent of respondents said they never watch city commission meetings online, whereas 1.5 percent said they always do.
The emphasis on these results has had the appearance of building a case to shut down webcasting, but I won’t let anyone tell me that these numbers suggest that the city’s streaming service has been a failure. Webcasting Hobbs’ public meetings is a service in its infancy. It had been in operation less than six months when the city conducted its survey. An erroneous assumption to make about the survey’s respondents, especially the 68.5 percent who said they “never watch city commission meetings online,” is that 100 percent knew prior to the survey that such a service is available and still choose not to watch meetings online.
Commissioners seem to have had a similar concern. During a June 5 commission meeting, commissioners noted that promotion of the streaming service has been absent from the city’s grassroots marketing during the last year. I heard commissioners suggest notices in the newspaper, posts on the city’s social-media assets like Facebook, and displaying a prominent advertisement about the service on the city’s website, just as it advertises other services, like the option to pay utility bills online.
I would like to reinforce the point: If there is lower-than-expected usage of the city’s webcasting, it has more to do with residents’ awareness of the service, rather than the service itself. This is a marketing issue. I said as much in a June 11 letter to the editor in the Hobbs News-Sun.
When one watches online a Hobbs public meeting in real time, the screen displays the number of viewers who are currently watching. Since the start of the service, that number has ranged from single digits to several dozen. To illustrate the effectiveness of streaming meetings online, I would like for commissioners, staff and residents to visualize a filled seat in the commission chambers for each person tuning in online. Seriously, city department heads and only the most devoted residents know all too well what it’s like to sit in a nearly empty chamber during a commission meeting. What if those 15 people watching online were sitting in the room? It really changes one’s perception, doesn’t it?
There’s no evidence that commissioners’ suggestions of ways to increase webcasting viewership have been taken seriously. At this point, the city’s restraint in marketing the webcasting of meetings appears intentional, and all signs point to Mr. Murphy as the bottleneck.
Since Byron Marshall pitched the idea in the spring of 2015, we webcasting advocates in Hobbs have faced resistance to this service every step of the way. Byron and I were witness to the passion with which Mr. Murphy fought against webcasting. Byron and I tried to consolidate our then-separate efforts to achieve webcasting by meeting with Mr. Murphy together. We even attempted to include City Commissioner Pat Taylor. In the heat of confrontation, refusing to meet with us together and refusing to include Commissioner Taylor, Mr. Murphy scolded Commissioner Taylor and said that she is not his boss.
Au contraire. Commissioner Taylor most certainly is his boss, and she most certainly has the power to vote that he never again has anything to do with Hobbs, since his five-year contract is up later this month, and he doesn’t appear to have another job lined up, despite the evidence of trying to leave Hobbs for the last few years.
Municipal and county governments all over New Mexico, of every size and with every budget, have taken up webcasting as an easy and inexpensive means to inform constituents. It is becoming universally accepted as a way to allow residents to attend public meetings as much as installing chairs in meeting rooms.
When Mr. Murphy’s contract ends this month, I hope the webcasts not only continue but thrive under a city mantra of transparency and public participation that Mr. Murphy has never embraced. Let’s hope that, going forward, Hobbs’ new city manager will make a good-faith effort to promote transparency by telling residents that they can watch their government at work by watching meetings online. We want City Hall to be as active at promoting transparency as it has been at promoting publicity.
Dennis Barcuch is a husband, father and owner of two businesses in Southeastern New Mexico. Agree with his opinion? Disagree? We welcome your views. Learn about submitting your own commentary here.