Technology helps council members engage from afar
Mayor Nancy Berry and Councilwoman Julie Schultz welcome James Benham’s remote participation at a recent meeting.
“Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time …” –Winston Churchill
By Ben Roper, Director of Information Technology
Democratic government is messy, and can be compared to making sausage — no one really likes to watch the process, and not everyone approves of the final product.
Representative government was viewed by the founding fathers as so important that Article I of the U.S. Constitution sets the provisions at the federal level. However, the same concept is even more vital at the local level. As in many cities our size, College Station’s city council members are unpaid volunteers, and their full-time jobs and other demands occasionally conflict with scheduled council meetings.
Not long ago, that meant they sometimes had to miss council meetings, which affected their ability to represent their constituents in the debate and dialogue of a typical meeting. The institution of representative government was not completely fulfilled in those instances.
In 2013, the state legislature changed all that by amending the Texas Open Meetings Act to allow for remote participation in meetings of governmental bodies through videoconferencing. That means we can now use technology to support representative government.
And that’s a good thing.
Since April, various College Station city council members have participated in four meetings by videoconference. We are one of only a handful of Texas cities using videoconferencing for this purpose, which is significant.
As the city’s director of information technology, this provision is among an endless set of challenges dreamed up by those who seem intent on making my life harder. Meeting the specific requirements regarding audio quality has been difficult, but the biggest challenge is assuring that the remote participant is visible by the rest of the council and the audience. If they aren’t, it isn’t a valid meeting.
Fortunately, we’ve managed to address those challenges.
Democracy depends on full and complete participation by our representatives and, as a citizen, I couldn’t be prouder that College Station is a leader in this area.
About the Author
Ben Roper has been the City of College Station’s information technology director since 2007 after serving three years as assistant director. Prior to joining the city, he was deputy director for communications for the U.S. Navy’s Fleet Forces Command, assistant chief of staff for communications for the U.S. Sixth Fleet, commanding officer of the USS Rentz, and satellite communications analyst for the Department of Defense. Roper earned an MBA from Sam Houston State and two Master of Science degrees from the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School.