Should public's voice be heard?

Loudon community TV station removes meeting comments

LOUDON - The Loudon County community television channel is debating whether or not to continue its policy of editing out public comments from meetings.

The channel's advisory committee heard testimony Thursday from citizens and committee members about the practice, which has been in place for several years.

Loudon County resident Shirley Harrison said she spoke before the Lenoir City Council recently and was later surprised to find out that her comments had been removed from the taped broadcast.

Public comment is important to the principles of freedom, said Pat Hunter, a Loudon County activist. "Public comment is perhaps the most important part of a public meeting, and a public television station ought to realize that."

Jim Fella, station manager of LCTV-3, said the station has agreed to cover meetings of the Loudon County Commission, Lenoir City Council, city of Loudon and Loudon County school board meetings in exchange for funding.

"That funding comes from the public," Hunter said.

The policy of editing out public comment is based upon several factors, including technology and resources, but also because some members of the advisory committee do not feel it is an important part of the meetings, Fella said.

Committee member Becky Boyd said she primarily watches the channel to get information on community activities. "I don't want to have to watch a two-hour meeting to find out about baseball sign-ups," she said.

Other attempts to explain the station's policy were sometimes contradictory.

"We cover the meeting gavel to gavel," said committee member Chris Smallen.

When Hunter pointed out the public comment section of most public meetings comes within the gavel-to-gavel period, Smallen replied that public comments were an exception to the rule.

"We only want to cover the business part of the meeting," said committee member Jane Whittaker.

Hunter again pointed out that under county guidelines for conducting meetings, public comment is listed under the "order of business" between call to order and adjournment.

"The station is contracted by the county to cover the public meeting," Hunter said. "The public comment is part of the public meeting."

Fella said one of the reasons behind removing public comment from the meetings was because the station did not have enough tape, or had to change tapes during long meetings. A new hard drive that was just purchased allows up to eight hours of uninterrupted recording time, he said. There is still the issue of limited broadcast time to deal with, he added.

"Most public comment sessions last five or 10 minutes," Hunter said.

Fella said he would like to review the minutes of the meetings during which the original decision was made to make sure that committee members understand why the decision was made. The advisory committee will review the topic again at its April 16 meeting and could vote to change the policy at that time, he added.

Hugh G. Willett is a freelance contributor to the News Sentinel.