Transparency murk: Will General Assembly crack open the door?

Sarah Gamard
The News Journal
Smyrna/Clayton Sun-Times

When House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf announced earlier this month that his staff has been researching livestreaming Delaware General Assembly debates for more than a year, a lot of people were surprised.

Some were even incredulous.

“I don’t know what Schwartzkopf is trying to make out of whole cloth, but it’s not anything other than a figment of his imagination to say that we have been working on this for a year,” said Rep. John Kowalko, D-Newark, who is a member of Schwartzkopf’s caucus.

“I’ve never heard a consideration or a plan or a committee or a task force or anything formulated that was considering livestreaming.”

Kowalko is part of a group of mostly Republican lawmakers who this year are pushing a resolution to create a plan to film all floor debates and public committee hearings in the General Assembly and publish them online for the public to see.

Schwartzkopf, a Democrat from Rehoboth Beach, isn’t a fan of the proposal because he fears that his and other elected officials’ private meetings held in certain rooms will get secretly recorded. The Legislature doesn’t need a bill or a group working on the issue, he said.

Schwartzkopf did not respond to several requests for interviews for this story.

He will not divulge details of what’s been done, where the process stands or substantially answer questions about it. A staff member did provide an email that did not illuminate the issue.

The announcement raises questions over whether statehouse leaders plan to chuck the resolution and go with their own plan, which some lawmakers worry could skirt public talks on the proposal that will likely cost taxpayer dollars.

“It would be silly for a transparency and accountability bill to have no public process,” said Rep. Mike Smith, R-Pike Creek Valley, who is championing the resolution that Schwartzkopf has issues with.

So far, that seems to be the case. Smith said he was unaware of the yearlong discussions until he introduced the resolution.

“If they’ve been looking into it for that long, then we should be able to do it without the resolution and have something done this year,” Smith said. “It’s just a matter, to me, of how much of what I proposed in the resolution are they willing to do, and how little are they willing to do?”

It’s also unclear why the yearlong talks were not made public, and whether lawmakers intend to publish the findings to allow public input.

When Delaware Online/The News Journal asked for clarity on this, House spokesman Drew Volturo responded in an email: “Staff regularly research legislative issues and topics as part of their regular duties. As proposals and items move forward, we follow all appropriate rules regarding public disclosure.”

“It is ironic,” said John Flaherty, director for the Delaware Coalition for Open Government, about the yearlong research not being publicized.

Schwartzkopf not announcing it until recently could be an omen that some officials could be trying to thwart the effort, he said.

“For the House Democratic leadership to not be in the forefront of this does not speak well in their commitment to open and transparent government,” Flaherty said. “Maybe they could comment about their findings publicly at the committee hearing for Rep. Smith’s resolution. So maybe there’s some good coming out of this. But there’s no reason to conduct in secrecy.”

In response to a News Journal report about Schwartzkopf’s resistance to livestreaming all public meetings, the speaker issued a statement saying his staff has been researching the idea for more than a year.

The statement also said Delaware doesn’t need any legislation to implement livestreaming, including Smith’s resolution.

Schwartzkopf, one of Delaware’s highest-ranking lawmakers, controls the 41-member House chamber’s schedule. He said in his statement that he is not opposed to livestreaming the House and Senate chambers when the General Assembly is in session. He didn’t say anything about committee hearings, where a bulk of the public discussion takes place.

After the story appeared online, Schwartzkopf’s statement disputed the reporting, saying that the “theme” was “taken from a half-quote and several assumptions.” He did not elaborate on what those assumptions were.

In a January interview that lasted a little over a minute, Schwartzkopf said, “I put it (Smith’s legislation) in committee because in the bill — I don’t think it should be a resolution because in the resolution, at the last part of the resolution, it talks about funding and how to get the funding and all this stuff. You don’t put that in a resolution. I stuck it in committee so we can all discuss it.”

He also said he wasn’t crazy about the resolution because there would be “problems trying to implement everything.” He said he didn’t want cameras and microphones in rooms that could be used for caucus meetings because someone might be able to illicitly tap in and listen.

“I’m not going to do that part of it,” Schwartzkopf said. “But we’ll have that discussion.”

Caucus meetings, which are about as common as public meetings when the General Assembly is in session, are lawmakers’ opportunity to talk freely and privately about bills, strategies and constituent issues behind closed doors with fellow party members.

For now, something is better than nothing, Smith says. Starting with just livestreaming floor debates could help “dispel some fears,” but he thinks the General Assembly needs to ultimately livestream more than just the floor debates.

“Eventually, for true transparency, you need to be able to do all of them,” he said, adding he expects that to be the hot-button issue.

Fear of hackers?

He said he didn’t want cameras and microphones in rooms that could be used for caucus meetings because someone might be able to illicitly tap in and listen. “I’m not going to do that part of it,” Schwartzkopf said. “But we’ll have that discussion.”