Tuesday, March 11, 2008

On Location: Room 114

Since it was adopted as the meeting chambers for the Westbrook City Council, Room 114 in the Westbrook High School has become strangley metonymic for the Council. Sure, there have been murmurings about constructing a more stately and more dignified meeting place for the Paper City solons. But Room 114 has become like Fenway Park in the sense that so many tweaks and small improvements have been made to it over the years that a replacement is deemed to be less and less necessary with each modest twist of the screw. To be sure, Room 114 does not possess the old charm and historical reverence of the ball park on Yawkey Way. But both are also similar in that they are each experienced mostly through our television screens, and are, therefore, basically glorified television studios. In other words, the blue hue of the Room 114 walls and the green glow of Fenway's outfield grass are more recognizable to most people in Westbrook than the council chamber's hard, plastic chairs or the cramped seats of Fenway.

To be fair, last night's City Council meeting would be a disingenuous measuring stick when considering citizen participation in Room 114. After all, the special council meeting consisted of a formal introduction, the necessary citation of a state statute, and a forty-five minute Executive Session in which the bigwigs of the city retreated from public view into a high school classroom. It would be easy to say the meeting was dull. But it would be more accurate to describe the meeting last night as nonexistent. So it shouldn't be alarming, or even surprising, that there were more cameras in Room 114 than there were Westbrook citizens. In fact, it is quite the opposite: We should be glad more people were unlike this correspondent and stayed home.

What is interesting, though, is that I've attended a fair number of meetings over the last three or four years in which flesh and bone residents were outnumbered by Room 114's cameras. Consequently, this has gradually influenced the participatory experience of the council meetings.

The meetings don't often start until the little red ON AIR box on the back wall lights up. And because there's usually only a sea of empty blue chairs to address in the Room 114 audience, some of the city councilors are guilty of occassionally eyeballing one of the cameras while pontificating this point or that point. But who can blame them? At least they can hope someone is watching on t.v.; they sure as hell know no one in that high school multifunction room is paying attention (with exception of the able and competent city staff, of course). Besides the seemingly ubiquitous number of small cameras dangling from the room's walls and ceilings, there's also the t.v. that's tucked into the left corner of the room. Instead of being tuned to the ticker tape of an MSNBC or CNN, though, the t.v. is programmed to the local access channel. How meta: The City Council can talk and watch themselves talk at the same time.

This gradual evolution to a television-centric city council meeting is not necessarily a bad thing, despite the number of teeth I've gnashed while pounding this post out. In fact, it has democratized the event, because it enables those who are unable to attend the event to watch it from the comfort of their home. And I also think Westbrook should lead the way in broadcasting their meetings on the Internet, such as on YouTube (hint, hint). Instead, chalk this up as one instance of progress that isn't necessarily worse or better. Just different.

Now if we could only do something about those hard, plastic chairs.

- John C.L. Morgan

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