BYRNES STILL PUSHING THE TV BUTTONS

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By DUSTIN RACIOPPI

When the New Year rolls in, Sean Byrnes will no longer sit behind the dais of Middletown’s governing body. So if he wants to know in detail what happens at its meetings, he’s got one option: to sit in the audience.

But while the Democrat’s days as a township committee member are winding down, Byrnes continues to push to have meetings televised, despite resistance.

At the committee’s next meeting, in December, Byrnes — who lost his bid for re-election earlier this month — said he intends to introduce a resolution to videorecord the meetings and put them online.

And if the past is any indicator, his will be the only vote in favor of it.

Byrnes’ Republican counterparts on the committee have said at recent meetings, when he has brought the idea up, that considering a tight budget that has already included layoffs, taxpayers should be spending money on this. The cost itself is a nebulous figure. Numbers as low as $25,000 and upwards of $100,000 have been thrown out among the committee.

“I have no problem with it as long as it doesn’t cost us anything,” Mayor Gerry Scharfenberger said at an October meeting. “We’re looking to save money here, not spend more. I don’t think it’s fair to taxpayers to spend on something that is non-essential.”

Last week, Byrnes showed that airing meetings can cost as little as an internet connection. At the committee’s meeting, he set up a laptop and webcam, demonstrating that through a website, justin.tv, anybody with a password to the account he set up could catch every minute of the meeting.

Certainly it would cost more to install cameras and the proper tools to get committee meetings on the airwaves, Byrnes admits.

But in his view, “that’s a worthwhile expense to allow our citizens to see what we’re doing. That holds us accountable,” he said.

His idea is to have more transparency in local government. Meetings in Middletown typically have low attendance, and it’s almost always the same faces in the audience. Byrnes thinks more people would like to know what the committee is doing, but don’t have the time or means to make meetings. Making them available on television or online will offer a more convenient option for interested residents, he said.

“In the last few years, it has seemed to me that more people are paying attention. When I talk to people, they’re more aware because their pockets aren’t as full,” Byrnes said. “They’re keeping a closer eye on how money is spent. The politicians can’t get away with as much when people are paying attention.”

Resistance to airing the meetings, while on its face is for financial reasons, isn’t new to town government. In East Brunswick, previous councils balked for years at the idea of televising government meetings, said Cindy O’Connor, program manager for EBTV, which produces council and school board meetings. It’s been 12 years since a new council, running on a platform of transparency, decided to air meetings and they went live on the air, she said.

“There had been a sentiment in town, well, who will watch anyway? And it turned out people were really interested,” O’Connor said. “The council meetings are the most watched program we produce.”

Byrnes says the production doesn’t have to be a grand, and it doesn’t need to be Middletown’s must-see TV, he said.

“We just need to show it,” he said. “We need people to get involved, we need people for their service, we need their thoughts.”