There’s currently no plan for a complete, unfiltered video recording of the Wasilla special session

Rep. Ben Carpenter walks out of the House Education subcommittee during its March 18, 2019 meeting. Gavel Alaska cameras weren't present at the meeting so the only visual evidence of the meeting was captured by the Legislature-run Alaska Legislative TV cameras that are hard-wired into each committee room.

When we reported yesterday that Gavel Alaska isn’t heading to the Wasilla special session—or any special session outside of Juneau, for that matter—we assumed that the Legislature-run camera service Alaska Legislative Television would be there in some capacity.

The “security camera-level coverage,” as KTOO President and General Manager Bill Legere described it, isn’t the clearest and it would only be available to people with solid internet access, but it was better than nothing.

After posting yesterday’s story, we heard back from Legislative Affairs Agency Director Jessica Geary and it turns out that we assumed a little too much. She informed us that the Legislature can’t move its hard-wired cameras and the only complete recordings currently planned for a Wasilla special session are audio.

“We would not be able to take our cameras up to Wasilla because they are hard-wired and mounted in each committee room,” she wrote in an email response. “AKleg.tv would still broadcast audio, but there would be no video capability.”

The two traditional sources of unedited and unfiltered video coverage of the session will not be there. Television stations, newspapers and bloggers will cover the session, but it’s not equivalent coverage.

Even the audio quality is potentially questionable, according to six-page rebuttal prepared by the Legislative Affairs Agency to the governor’s proposal of hosting the special session at the Wasilla Middle School. The classrooms that the governor intends to be used as committee spaces don’t have any audio systems in place and the gym floor sessions would rely on run-of-the-mill wireless microphones “that are notably unreliable, require frequent battery replacement and deliver poor sound quality.”

The Legislative Affairs Agency already has limited field equipment so providing live coverage of the floor sessions and multiple meeting rooms is not currently feasible. It could leave the committee meetings with no live coverage at all.

“In order to stream committee meetings for AlaskaLegislature.tv, LAA would need to purchase and install upgraded streaming services,” explains the LAA document. “The alternative would be no access to those not physically present.”

The document also explains that the limited connectivity of the classrooms means there would be no way for people to call in to testify to committees. Again, input would be limited to those who can physically attend.

The problems don’t end there, either. A lot of the record-keeping would be done by LAA staff that are in Juneau, but the connectivity problems would require additional people to be relocated to Wasilla for the duration of the meeting.

A shoddy or incomplete record of the special session is not an option.

“The record of committee proceedings is equally crucial to the overall historical record of legislative decision making,” explains the LAA document.

That’s not to mention the uncertainty whether the Legislature will even stay in Wasilla or for how long.

Why it matters

The Wasilla special session was pitched as a way for more Alaskans to have access to the Legislature, and Gov. Mike Dunleavy said at a press conference outside the middle school last week that more than 500,000 Alaskans would be able to drive to the special session.

While that may be technically true (setting aside the capacity of a middle school to host a half-million people), it’s coming at the expense of access for anyone who can’t make the trek. Is access really improved when the best way to track a special session requires hours of driving?

The governor’s spokesman said they’re exploring “alternatives” for video coverage of the session, but it raises issues with the quality of coverage. Gavel Alaska will often use local television stations as stopgaps, but Legere pointed out that the quality of coverage is far different.

“Gavel is just there to watch and be the public’s eye,” he said.

And the impact isn’t just for people wanting to watch, but for anyone who wants to testify. As the Legislative Affairs Agency points out, without teleconference capabilities the only testimony that the committees will be able to hear is from people who can crowd into a middle school classroom.

While people have fairly brought up the problems with access to Juneau, technology has long been there to bridge the access gaps across the state. Committees can easily take testimony from around the state through the interconnected network of legislative information offices and offnet call-in numbers. It’s imperfect, but under the existing system there’s always been opportunities for everyone in Alaska to participate. A Wasilla special session could lock out many, many more Alaskans.

There’s also the matter of creating a quality and durable historical record. The LAA documents note that the 2015 special session held at the previous Anchorage LIO fail to live up to that standard: “The historical record and the people of Alaska deserve better than the spotty recordings of the 2015 Anchorage special session.”

And, sure, these solutions could be remedied with additional spending on streaming servers and by hiring a fill-in camera crew, but the cost of a Wasilla special session is already expected to be more than $1 million.

The special session is set to begin on July 8.

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