Fate of Montreal city council webcasts uncertain

MONTREAL – Back on March 23, at the end of a particularly nasty two-day debate at city council over the fate of a former convent on the Outremont slope of Mount Royal, Montreal executive committee vice-chairperson Alan DeSousa was asked if the issue was one that resonated with ordinary taxpayers.

“I judge from the reactions of people,” DeSousa said after council voted to change the zoning of the building from institutional to residential.

“I read every single correspondence. … I must say there was very, very little interest from average Montrealers.”

And now, more than two months later, it seems that as far as the Internet is concerned, DeSousa may have been on to something.

Figures on how many hits were received during the maiden flight of a program to live-webcast city council meetings show that the March 22-23 meeting received a total 2,587 hits, nearly two-thirds of them from within the city’s own computer system.

Relatively speaking, that figure compares favourably with the 500 to 2,000 hits a month the city’s archived collection of council meetings received.

But if the number of hits for the fate of the Mount Royal convent seem underwhelming, the interest of Meadowbrook golf course, which was debated during the meeting of April 19-22, was even lower – only 353 hits were recorded.

Upon hearing the numbers, though, DeSousa said it was too soon to write off the live webcasts.

“I think it’s something people need time to get used to,” he said, adding that while he’s heard comments from people lauding the quality of the debate, others have remarked how tedious council proceedings can sometimes seem.

City councillor and council majority leader Marvin Rotrand wonders, given the webcasts’ dwindling numbers (and their price tag of at least $129 an hour) whether there might be more efficient ways to let the public know what their elected officials are up to.

“Is it the best use of funds to encourage participatory democracy?” he asked.

“Would we be better off, given that the figures seem to show these broadcasts do not seem to be heady broadcasting that draws a mass audience, taking that money and putting it into extra personnel for the commissions of council or the city’s advertising and notification? At this point, the jury’s still out.”

The assessment of the webcast’s reach – or lack thereof – coincides with the hearings of a special commission mandated to examine how Montreal’s bureaucracy can tighten its belt sufficiently to cover an anticipated $400-million shortfall in the 2011 budget.

The hearings, which began on April 28, have been webcast live. As of May 12, they had attracted a total of 2,487 hits from 1,663 visitors.

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