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Politics

Today, on Tarpon Springs TV: zip

While neighboring cities are broadcasting their meetings online and on TV, Tarpon Springs is fiddling with VHS tapes.

By ROBIN STEIN
Published February 27, 2007


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TARPON SPRINGS -The dawn of the digital age has revolutionized public access to governments big and small.

Cities around the country have given up the paper chase and analog tapes in favor of video streams and podcasts. Candidate debates and council hearings in city halls from Los Angeles to Grey Cloud Island Township, Minn., (population 267) are now available in real time on the Web. On his first day as governor of New York last month, Eliot Spitzer issued an executive order requiring all public entities and agencies to broadcast public meetings on the Internet.

Yet the high-tech metamorphosis is taking hold slower here in Tarpon Springs, where meetings are still recorded on cassettes and the government-access channel is mostly just a blue screen.

Miss a Tuesday night City Commission meeting and there is little recourse: either request copies of the minutes or audiotapes, or make sure to be in front of a local television at 2 p.m. the next day.

The meeting will air on Channel 15 - once, in the doldrums of Wednesday afternoon, opposite One Life to Live and Family Feud.

The gavel-to-gavel coverage will play through a single time before the stagnant blue screen returns - and remains until next week.

Channel 15's dismal lineup has not gone unnoticed in City Hall, but there are few signs of imminent change.

The most vocal proponent of expanding the city's television presence has been Commissioner Peter Dalacos. Since he joined the Board in 2004, Dalacos has been arguing that the city should capitalize on our "channel flipping culture" to bolster public access and participation. Now the issue is a central part of his platform for re-election.

"People should be able to turn it on on a Friday or a Sunday and catch a meeting or at least have a calendar up there that says when it will be played," Dalacos said.

But city staff said there are no specific plans in the works for major changes.

"A number of commissioners are very anxious to have this up and going," said Judy Staley, the city spokeswoman. "We're broadcasting what we can handle at the moment and hoping to upgrade."

The current campaign season has generated an unusual surge of live action on Channel 15. But the loop of Penny for Pinellas promotions will fade after the election. The contrast makes the normal void even more objectionable to Dalacos.

"They use the channel when it's at their convenience to push their agenda," Dalacos said. "But we're not getting any replays of the commission meetings."

Dalacos wants the station to air not only City Commission meetings, but also advisory boards and promotions for performers and acts the city brings to town that often wind up playing to half-filled auditoriums.

"What goes on in code enforcement and planning and zoning meetings has a very significant effect on the community," Dalacos said. "If people could stay more aware of what's going on, we might get more people at the meetings."

But the city manager has reported to the commission that staff is already spread thin and replacing broadcasting equipment is expensive.

"We've been looking at what the options are so we can operate the TV channel with some informative material with as little staff time as we can," said Staley, the spokeswoman.

Even airing the commission meetings once a week presents a challenge, she said. Because the city has only two VHS decks, someone must physically change tapes at the two-hour mark.

"You work with what you've got," said Staley, who has been asked to research upgrade options with the city's computer specialist. Neither is a television expert and no timetable has been set.

"It hasn't been made a priority for me," she said.

Upgrading the television station ranked higher on the list a few years ago, when the city received a $30,000 equipment grant as part the new franchise agreement with Bright House Networks. The city manager formed a staff task force to explore possible directions, which ultimately concluded that significant changes would be cost-prohibitive without raising taxes or hiring more employees.

Today, about $25,000 of the grant remains, Staley said.

Meanwhile, neighboring cities have rolled out all sorts of ways to use their free air time to expand public access - with a variety of budgets, bells and whistles.

In Clearwater, C-VIEW replays meetings of the City Council, Community Development, Code Enforcement and Downtown Development Board several times. The station also produces three monthly call-in shows. All of the programming is posted on the city's Web site by Granicus, a company based in San Francisco that provides streaming and hosting services to 120 state and local governments around the country.

Dunedin's station airs City Commission meetings live and replays them twice every day. Spotlight on Dunedin, a half-hour magazine show, is produced in-house, along with a talk show hosted by the city manager.

The rest of the schedule is filled with public productions such as Veterans Corner and Sunsational Seniors.

On Safety Harbor in Sight, City Commission meetings are replayed 13 times a week, with a shifting mix of special events.

Oldsmar is smaller than Tarpon Springs and its VHS camera is 10 years old, but the city's channel is never just a blue screen.

Commission meetings are aired live and replayed seven times a week.

The city clerk, Lisa A. Lene, said her two-person communications staff has been adding features since Oldsmar first the got its own channel in 2004. Between broadcasts, the screen is filled by a rotating slate of announcements created by a $10,000 software program. Besides commission meetings, the station has also begun to air city award ceremonies and Veterans Day celebrations filmed by a freelance producer, she said.

"We got the bulletin board first, then we got meetings, then we got DVD players." Lene said. "We're not up to Clearwater and Dunedin or any of those places, but we have a channel that's very informative and creative."

Lene thinks there has been a sizable increase in the audience of council meetings already, and this year, the budget includes $15,000 for new portable cameras and audio gear.

"We're taking baby steps," she said. Channel flippers of Oldsmar, stay tuned.

[Last modified February 27, 2007, 07:52:32]


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