Havre Daily News
The Montana Legislature is test driving a new way for residents to get involved with state government, and Havre residents had a chance to participate Thursday night. Videoconferencing technology is allowing residents and local government officials in various cities across the state to participate in the legislative process without having to drive to Helena.
A pilot project called Bringing the Legislature to Montanans brought Havreites together with people in Billings, Butte, Bozeman, Roundup and Helena on Thursday evening for a meeting of the Senate Local Government Committee.
Hill County Commissioner Doug Kaercher, who was asked to moderate the Havre session, said videoconferencing shows promise.
"I think it's a real good start, but we probably don't have enough sites across the state to handle all of the bills going through the Legislature," Kaercher said. He noted that the Legislature meets throughout the day, limiting the chances for regular citizens to get involved.
"It's pretty tough for the Legislature to decide which bills will be heard in which communities," he said. "I think, over time, it will become more widely used. As it becomes more popular, more people will be interested in it. I'm certainly glad to be at home instead of Helena."
The pilot project came out of the Legislative Council, a 12-member committee that meets after the session to make recommendations on the legislative process, Legislative Services Division executive director Lois Menzies said Thursday. She said the project, which also presented committee hearings via videoconferencing Tuesday and Wednesday, has been a success.
"I've been very pleased," Menzies said. "I truly believe this is the way to go with the technology. I really get excited when people are able to get involved in the legislative process."
Menzies will later meet with the Legislative Council and present an assessment of the project. The council will then determine whether it wants to continue the program, she said.
Sen. Jeff Mangan, D-Great Falls, said the project ran smoothly and could open the door to wider use of videoconferencing. Mangan chairs the Senate Local Government Committee. He said the technology is a great way for people to participate in the legislative process without having to drive to Helena.
"I think after this session it will be used on a more regular basis on some bills," Mangan said. "It's gone very smoothly. We've had good participation at most sites. People have said they appreciate having this ability, instead of having to jump in their cars and come to Helena. If it just helps one person get involved in the process, then it's been successful."
Dean Hanson of Gildford attended the session and spoke in favor of a bill sponsored by Rep. Bob Bergren, D-Havre. HB 666 would revise the laws dealing with county water and sewer districts. Hanson has worked with the Hill County Water District for more than 40 years. He said videoconferencing was a good idea, but wished more people had attended Thursday's session.
"We need more representation from local citizens to make it meaningful," Hanson said. "It's very well-handled, covers the subject matter and allows public expression. I think it could and should be used more often."
Former Rep. Toni Hagener of Havre attended the session and said she was pleased with the idea.
"I think it's a great idea," she said. "I think they have to work a few things out, but it can be a very useful tool, saving people time and money and allowing people to participate in government. It's a wonderful idea, and I'm glad they decided to try this out."
The state tapped Great Falls-based Vision Net Inc. to provide the equipment used in Helena to conduct the videoconferences. Vision Net worked in cooperation with the state Information Technology Services Division.
The Havre session was conducted using videoconferencing equipment in the Hagener Science Center at Montana State University-Northern.
"Vision Net is pleased to be a part of this project and working with the state to provide this service to the communities," said Chuck MacDonald, a videoconferencing coordinator with the company. "It's a great way for the public to interact with the legislators. If they expand this program, I think it will be great for the far reaches of the state, so they can give feedback."