By John Valentine
President of the Utah Senate
This is too big a subject for a single blog post, but I'm going to try it anyway.
A prominent reporter has given the wrong impression about the Senate Site twice in the recent past. There seems to be a one-sided feud going on. I don't plan on joining it.
That aside, I would like to discuss with our readers how this site is operated and funded. If you see something amiss with the way we’ve structured things, please give me your thoughtful suggestions for improvement.
We created the Senate Site in August and September of 2005. From that time until now we’ve invested a little less than $1000 in the experiment. None of it was paid with state funds.
We decided not to host the site on a state server. We use BlueHost
, a phenomenal little internet company in Orem, Utah, which costs us about a hundred bucks a year. The Senate Minority
has followed suit and host their blog site there too.
We bought a digital camera for the Utah Senate (300 bucks on Amazon.com
), and a digital voice recorder ($150 on E-bay
), which are sometimes used for our blog. We paid for those privately, not using state funds. We also bought a little web cam
that we place at different spots in the Senate. No tax dollars were there either. (I don’t know why . . . I can only imagine that thing embarrassing me and hurting my election efforts!)
The cash investment in the site is fairly low. However, the time and energy investment has been significant.
Government needs to communicate with citizens – and vice versa. We try to facilitate this a hundred different ways.
- Award-winning, citizen-friendly web sites;
- E-mail correspondence;
- Direct phone conversations;
- Live streaming video of chamber activity;
- Streaming audio of chamber activity (both live and archived);
- On-line audio of our legislative committee meetings (live and archived);
- Personal meetings with groups and individuals;
- Etcetera. I’m sure I’ll think of more as I'm going to sleep tonight.
We also work with reporters and give them the information they need, so they can tell the story. I think that is an appropriate use of some staff time and public resources.
The Senate Site is our latest tool to help tell the story, and to engage with the citizens that live with, fund, and are ultimately responsible for their own government. We funded it privately to go an extra mile to avoid the perception of impropriety. However, I do think some staff time spent in this kind of public communication is appropriate - as long as it's not for discussion or events beyond what the state should be funding. More about that in a minute.Web 2.0
is different than working through a reporter because we can speak directly to the public, in our own voice, and our constituents can respond, anonymously or otherwise. I like the opportunity and the accountability. The limitations, of course, are that the audience is smaller and we’re not always impartial. That’s where a healthy, diversified blogging community becomes invaluable
– to provide balance and perspective.
We need that same community to give us some insight into a political and ethical aspect of sharing information here at the Senate.
Almost everything we post here is related to the Senate and/or the policy making process. On two or three occasions, we have mentioned fund raisers and other partisan activities (like party caucuses
). They are part of the overall story so it doesn’t make sense to hide it. We think people would want to be aware.
The vital ethical rule of thumb is that no state money should ever be privately appropriated for personal gain (campaigns, fund raisers, whatever).
So, what happens when political information is more private than public, but we still think people interested in the senate would want to know?
Right now, we feel comfortable using the Senate Site for that kind of information, but only under the following circumstances
, which we have followed religiously for the past two years: we post it on our own time, on our own nickel, on our own server, by way of our own computer. We do it after-hours. We avoid using state resources. We host the information privately – and in that way try to give citizens more complete information in an ethical manner.
I hope that is the right solution. I am aware that a elected officials and staff can dot all the Is and cross all the Ts and, in fact, be perfectly ethical but still be perceived as otherwise – which can damage the trust people have in their government. That is a concern. So, if there is a better way to run the Senate Site, I would like to hear about it.
We have one or two ultra-partisan bloggers who will respond to this post for political reasons. I am not as interested in hearing from them as I am from readers from all parties who can offer thoughtful criticism and insight on how we manage the site, assuming we continue running the senate’s blog experiment for another year.
I believe we – and by ‘we’ I mean the entire diversified Utah blogging community - are creating something uniquely helpful to citizens of Utah, and to some degree, citizens nationwide.This is new territory. There are few mentors and no rulebooks
. So, help us out. Let’s craft the rules for the new paradigm and make sure it’s done right.
I would sincerely appreciate your feedback.