The 2016 General Assembly session recently convened for its annual 90-day session. One area where the state legislature has shown notable improvement is in public access to the legislative process. Maryland, for example, now allows individuals to submit testimony electronically, audio stream sessions of the two houses of the General Assembly and even live video stream proceedings of House and Senate standing committees. Access facilitates a more robust, participatory form of democracy — the kind of democratic governing that allows more citizens to play a role in decision-making and expands the range of people able to play such roles.
Baltimore County, like our state government, also has made some important strides toward improving access for its citizens. Recorded Baltimore County Council sessions are broadcast for the public. Like the General Assembly, the Council invites residents to testify on legislation it is considering. Unlike the Assembly, however, these sessions are not recorded.
Having access is important to citizens, especially when it comes to engaging with our government. Meaningful access to the governing process keeps us connected and informed about the decisions being made on our behalf, and it helps keep elected officials informed about and focused on what we want.
While there are many things that our state and local governments do well to encourage this access, there remains more still that can be done. For starters, the County Council could consider finding ways to record and broadcast their work sessions. Doing so is an easy way for interested individuals to see the deliberations taking place on important pieces of county legislation. The Assembly and Council could likewise consider changing when public hearings and work sessions are conducted. Currently, these take place on weekday afternoons, making it difficult for working individuals to actively participate. Even as a pilot, it would be interesting to see if and how these types of changes would continue improving access to our governments and if they would encourage more people to have an active role in important county decisions.