Would you watch council meetings online?

By Jason Hawk - jhawk@aimmediamidwest.com



Let’s be honest: Almost no one attends Amherst city council meetings and few people watch them on television.

City IT director Steve Bukovac hopes to boost the signal by streaming meetings live online and has asked council for up to $50,000 to make it happen.

In a bid to make local government as transparent as possible, he wants to buy three high-definition cameras, update the council chambers at city hall, and create searchable archives of meeting footage.

Right now, council proceedings are shown on cable channel 98, the city’s public access station. But that channel is only available to Spectrum subscribers and not to those who choose to use competitors such as WoW! or Direct TV.

Bukovac said city meetings should also be accessible to people who, like him, have done away with television subscriptions altogether and primarily get their information online.

It should be noted that council meetings are made available on YouTube at present, but folks usually aren’t watching them.

As of this writing, meetings held Sept. 4 had just 10 views and most others dating back through 2018 generally had 20 or fewer views — although there are exceptions, such as a contentious Sept. 10 meeting featuring residents angry about utility bills, which has 92 views.

By going with Bukovac’s plan, Amherst wouldn’t be blazing any new trails. Neighboring Oberlin and the city of Remington in Hamilton County both use similar meeting-streaming services, he told the local finance committee on Sept. 17.

The system he wants to implement would make meetings searchable by topic, track how many people watch meetings in full and which segments draw the most interest, and stream directly to social media sites.

It would also add some production value to council meetings, putting the camera automatically on whoever is speaking and adding banners to name them.

Several council members spoke in favor of the expenditure. At-large Phil Van Treuren, for example, said it would be a valuable tool for future elected officials who need to research decisions and issues.

“This is so much a no-brainer. It’s a softball you throw,” said at-large Joe Miller. “It’s needed. We’re behind the times. Our residents need this too, they need to know what’s going on. A lot of our communication problems may be solved.”

There are, however, still some questions up in the air.

One is how to ensure that cameras and microphones are turned off when council adjourns to executive sessions — those limited discussions officials are allowed to have behind closed doors on items such as pending lawsuits, hiring or firing of public employees, or preparing for bargaining sessions with unions.

Another question is whether the cost of the upgrades can actually be kept to under $50,000 and whether annual fees for production and technical support services count toward that amount.

And yet another is whether the city should continue to pay for upkeep to its public access channel, Bukovac said.

Jason Hawk can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @EditorHawk on Twitter.


By Jason Hawk