Citizens push for webcasting in Hobbs

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Byron Marshall was bedridden for about a year after he moved back to Hobbs in July 2013.

Byron Marshall was hospitalized and near death in July 2013 and spent a year in recovery. Now healthy, he's pushing his city commission to begin webcasting so others have access he didn't when he was ill.

Courtesy photo

Byron Marshall was hospitalized and near death in July 2013 and spent a year in recovery. Now healthy, he’s pushing his city commission to begin webcasting so others have access he didn’t when he was ill.

Ill with severe pneumonia, he spent three days in a coma and on life support. His family cared for him while he recovered.

Marshall, who grew up in Hobbs, was living in Las Cruces before his illness sent him back home. He was used to keeping up with local politics in Las Cruces, where most local government boards webcast and archive video of their meetings online.

The Hobbs City Commission doesn’t webcast. Confined to his bed, Marshall found himself unable to access or participate in his government while he recovered.

“I was so out of my norm,” he said. “I didn’t know what was going on.”

Today Marshall, 40 and a former walk-on football player for the New Mexico State University Aggies, is healthy. And he’s actively pushing Hobbs to webcast and archive video of its meetings. He’s done research on webcasting in other cities, written a letter published in the local newspaper, spoken at commission meetings, and talked with elected officials.

Hobbs has spent more than $2.5 million in recent years on a police surveillance system that includes cameras at intersections and in parks, public buildings and elsewhere. Marshall contrasts that with the city’s lack of webcasting of its elected officials’ meetings.

“There are cameras literally covering Hobbs,” he said. “If the commissioners and the city think it’s good to hold the public accountable and to have some transparency — basically Big Brother in my mind is what they’re doing — how about I have the same luxury, watching the people who control my tax dollars, the people who are making these decisions?”

Behind the curve

The Census estimated the population of Hobbs, located in Southeastern New Mexico, at just over 36,000 in 2013. It’s the second-fastest growing city in New Mexico.

The oil-rich region has one of the stronger economies in the state. Hobbs has a lower poverty rate than the state average — 16.7 percent compared to the state’s 20.4 percent — and a higher median income — $49,243 compared to the state’s $44,927.

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And yet Hobbs is behind the curve when it comes to webcasting. The state’s largest cities — Albuquerque, Las Cruces, Rio Rancho and Santa Fe — all webcast and archive meetings of their governing boards, as do many smaller towns including Las VegasSilver City and Socorro.

Hobbs recently started broadcasting commission meetings on a local radio station. That’s helpful for people who can listen live, but not those who are busy with jobs, families or other activities. You can buy a CD containing an audio recording of a meeting from the city if you have the money and means to pick it up.

That’s not good enough for many. Dennis Barcuch, a business owner in Hobbs, is also encouraging the city to implement webcasting. He said he believes archived video available online any time of day would increase citizen participation and help commissioners take the pulse of their constituents.

Seeing what officials say, rather than just hearing, is important, Barcuch said.

“I want to see that somebody nods their head or looks away. I want to see them pick their nose. I want to see them agree with an issue or disagree with an issue with their subtle nuances,” Barcuch said. “There is nothing to hide, right? That’s the famous government saying: If you have nothing to hide, there’s nothing to fear.”

‘We want to try to do it right’

Commissioners haven’t committed to implementing webcasting but have listened to the pleas from Marshall and Barcuch. At a recent commission meeting, Mayor Sam Cobb expressed some concern but also suggested the city may move in the direction of webcasting.

“We’re not professional speakers and so the camera sometimes makes you reticent,” Cobb said. He added that using technology to help the public engage is a good thing.

“I don’t think any of us disagree with that,” Cobb said.

Commissioner Marshall Newman, a retired Hobbs police chief, told Barcuch at that meeting that the city was moving in the direction of webcasting. He said he understood that citizens wanted to see their elected officials in action.

“But at the same time we don’t have the opportunity to look at you on the other side sitting on a bean bag eating Cheetos,” Newman said. His words led to laughter and some joking.

Commissioner Garry Buie thanked Marshall and Barcuch for pushing the city to focus on webcasting.

“You two gentlemen have really stood up and I do appreciate that you’re making us look deeper,” he told Barcuch.

The commission has instructed City Manager J.J. Murphy to “bring us some proposals” related to webcasting in the next few weeks, Cobb told NMPolitics.net in an interview.

“He’s going to get that information together, and he’s been talking to a number of other communities around the state and country,” Cobb said. “We want to try to do it right the first time.”

Marshall claimed the city manager told him nothing would happen until at least next year. Murphy and some commissioners have responded negatively to the push for webcasting, Marshall said.

Murphy didn’t return a call from NMPolitics.net.

‘It’s not an expensive proposition’

The New Mexico Foundation for Open Government supports local governments webcasting to increase access, said Executive Director Susan Boe.

“We have the technology to do it. It’s not an expensive proposition,” Boe said. “So we would encourage Hobbs to move in this direction.”

Marshall said he’ll keep pushing to increase citizen access in Hobbs through webcasting.

“I’m feeling better now. That’s why I’m active in the politics,” he said. “I think about all those people – the people who are sick, the single mother with three kids, those who have to work.”

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