The Governor’s Council may be an outdated relic of the colonial era, but for the past two years it had successfully transitioned into the 21st century — along with much of state and local government — by livestreaming the weekly sessions where it reviews judicial nominations and other matters.
But even that has proved to be a little too much sunshine for the eight-member elected body. In March, the council returned to the good old, bad old days of meetings in their cramped chambers with sessions open only to those who can find their way to Room 360 at the State House.
If ever there was a group of politicians who could benefit from the bright light of day — the kind of transparency that livestreaming provides — it is this little known but important layer of government. Perhaps that’s just the point. Most of the councilors like things just as they are — or were pre-pandemic. In obscurity there is electoral advantage.
What councilors do is poorly understood. The districts from which they are elected correspond with no others in the state. Flying under the political radar screen, most members keep their $36,025 a year part-time jobs just about as long as they care to with little fear of retribution at the ballot box.
It’s a beautiful thing for incumbents, but not so much for the cause of good government.
And definitely not good for those interested in the work the council does, but who are unable to make the trek into Boston at midday on a Wednesday or have a disability that makes that impractical.
The council, for example, is scheduled to hold hearings on two judicial nominees in April. Imagine for a moment the US Senate Judiciary Committee deciding it would no longer allow CSpan to broadcast its hearings on judicial nominations (which it has been doing since 1981).
Council hearings were livestreamed throughout the COVID-19 shutdown, but went dark after March 2. First the council tried to blame the governor’s office — the lieutenant governor presides over council hearings and their chamber resides within the governor’s suite of offices.
The governor’s office did indeed provide the equipment and technical support, but insisted the decision to use it remained with the council. Then Councilor Mary Hurley, who is not running for reelection, insisted it was a “resources issue,” that the council didn’t have the necessary staff to keep it going (although as of this week it was still maintaining a video feed to council members who wished to access the meeting remotely).
Excuse Number 3 came from several councilors who referenced the work of a private blogger and activist in the Fatherhood Coalition who posts audiotapes of council meetings on his website long after the meetings.
“It’s even better than just live,” Councilor Joe Ferreira told State House News Service.
Truth be told, the Governor’s Council has often provided considerable fodder for those who believe it has outlived its shelf life as a way of confirming judicial nominees (it also votes on pardons and commutations and approves spending warrants). Its feuding has sometimes reached comic-opera proportions.
At a 2017 hearing Councilor Robert Jubinville called Ferreira a “bootlicker” and a “rubber stamp.” Hurley accused Councilor Marilyn Devaney of raining “terror” on the council.
At their most recent meeting, Devaney demanded a vote on restoring the livestreaming but never got a second to her motion. Asked by State House News Service about the streaming controversy, Councilor Eileen Duff replied, “I’m really not discussing it. I seriously think Councilor Devaney is mentally ill.”
So there it is. (And by the way, there’s nothing partisan going on here: All eight councilors are Democrats.)
And into this fray comes a coalition that believes it’s actually a good thing for the cameras to keep on rolling. It includes the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association, the New England First Amendment Coalition, the Disability Law Center, and the League of Women Voters, all looking to promote a little transparency.
“The people deserve to know what their government is doing, including the Governor’s Council’s important work,” the group wrote in a letter following this week’s meeting. “The decision to discontinue online streaming of Governor’s Council meetings should be reversed and remote access should be made permanent and routine for all public meetings.”
Indeed it should. And in the case of the Governor’s Council, such basic transparency might even add a tone of civility that seems to have slipped off the table the minute the cameras went off.
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