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Livestreamed Public Meetings: 21st Century Expectation or Unnecessary Cost?

Local officials in Missouri are grappling with the question in the midst of a mayoral race.

by Lynn Horsley, The Kansas City Star / October 31, 2017
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(TNS) -- Susan Kice and her husband regularly followed City Council meetings on cable television when they lived for many years in Wichita and Manhattan, Kan. So they were surprised when they moved to Lenexa in 2015.

There is no televising or video livestreaming of council meetings in Lenexa. Nor in Overland Park, Shawnee or Merriam.

The Johnson County Commission and city councils in Olathe, Mission and DeSoto do livestream their meetings. Prairie Village soon plans to join them.

It’s a question of transparency versus cost for many cities. And some opponents argue the public just doesn’t care.

Kice begs to differ.

“We’ve always watched our city council meetings,” Kice said of her experiences before she moved to Lenexa. “I think livestreaming or televising would be appropriate. I just think people might be more inclined to pay attention to the issues of the city.”

Kice raised that question when she hosted informal meetings with both Ward 2 Lenexa candidates running in the Nov. 7 election. “If they could do it in Manhattan, Kansas, I would think Lenexa could do it,” she said.

The question of livestreaming or televising meetings has also become something of a campaign issue in Overland Park, the metro area’s second largest city, where longtime incumbent mayor Carl Gerlach is being challenged by Charlotte O’Hara.

O’Hara says it’s just something 21st century cities should do for transparency and accessibility. Ward 1 Council candidate Logan Heley, who is challenging incumbent Dave Janson, also talks about the need for live video streaming on his campaign webpage.

“That would be one of the first things I would institute (if elected),” O’Hara told The Star’s Editorial Board. “Either televised or livestreaming.”

But Gerlach says O’Hara is making waves about an issue the public really doesn’t care about.

“I call this a campaign issue,” Gerlach told the Editorial Board, adding that it never comes up from the public or outside the context of a campaign challenge. He pointed out that Overland Park audiotapes its meetings and people can obtain those tapes.

Those audio recordings are available from the Overland Park city clerk’s office, at a cost of $1.09 per CD. A total of 11 audio recordings were requested in 2016, and four requests were made in 2017.

Overland Park Communications Manager Sean Reilly said that, like Lenexa, all written documentation for agenda items are attached and available prior to and after meetings.

Overland Park also has detailed written meeting minutes, which show that the council’s finance, administration and economic development committee had an extensive discussion about the idea of televising its meetings in January 2011. A few council members at the time supported the idea, but most felt it was not a high priority. It was discussed at another committee meeting in June 2011, but voted down, in part because of the projected $18,000 cost at that time.

In Lenexa, Mayor Mike Boehm, who does not face a challenger in this year’s election, said it’s never been anything that the public in Lenexa has really pushed. He predicted that televising or livestreaming meetings could adversely change their tone, with people acting out for the cameras.

“The public purpose is sometimes co-opted by special interests or just disruptive behavior,” he said. “We just haven’t thought that was needed or necessary.”

Boehm said the city puts all of its written materials and staff reports online ahead of the meetings, so the public is well informed that way. Adding livestreaming or televising would be an added expense.

“I think our dollars are better spent on public safety and recreation and things of that nature,” he said.

However, Kice noted that new technology has made livestreaming more economical, and cities like Mission and Prairie Village bear that out.

Shawnee and Miriam also don’t visually livestream their meetings, although Shawnee provides an audio livestream and archives that information, at a cost of $206 per year. City Clerk Stephen Powell said the city considered visual livestreaming about 10 years ago but didn’t see a demand.

Still, the Olathe City Council and the Johnson County Commission have televised their meetings on cable TV and have also livestreamed on their websites for years. Olathe still broadcasts on the local cable TV channel as well as webcasts, but Johnson County now just webcasts.

“Obviously, this community’s expectation and our council’s expectations are that we will be as open and transparent as possible,” said Tim Danneberg, communications director for the city of Olathe. “Broadcasting the meetings has never been second-guessed and is critically important to our governing body.”

Danneberg said the initial investment years ago was tens of thousands of dollars, but the cameras and the technology now are considerably cheaper. He said the latest equipment upgrade was about $8,000 and costs $10,000 per year, for a company that hosts the webcasts and archives and indexes the videos. He said the city doesn’t currently know how many people watch the webcasts but should soon start to get that data. Along with the public, he said the information is very useful to city staff and elected officials.

Former Johnson County Commission Chairwoman Annabeth Surbaugh, who now lives in Lenexa, said she pushed hard to start televising the meetings after she was first elected to the commission in November 2002, and she never regretted it.

“A live presentation online is the ultimate transparency, and it’s at the convenience of the working public,” she said. “Yes, people did watch and a lot of people would comment online to each other. It was worth the cost.”

Joe Waters, assistant county manager in Johnson County, said the county currently pays about $18,000 annually for the video broadcaster and $18,000 on closed captioning.

“We do think it helps the public be able to go back if they miss a meeting,” he said. “We meet during the day and people sometimes can’t get here.”

Like Danneberg, he agreed it’s also an invaluable tool for county staff and commissioners to review what was said on a particular issue.

The 2017 citizen survey in Johnson County showed that about 4 percent of respondents said they watch the meetings online.

The League of Kansas Municipalities doesn’t offer advice on broadcast or livestreaming policies. Each city is different and should make those decisions locally based on staff time, technology and resources, said communications manager Megan Gilliland. But she said the organization encourages “cities to take the steps they feel are necessary to engage their local constituents and create positive conversations about local government issues.”

“Social media and other platforms have been very effective for governments – large and small – and I applaud any efforts communities take to engage their residents and solicit meaningful feedback to make Kansas communities stronger and more resilient,” she said.

The city of Mission has had a bare-bones system of video streaming since 2014 that is inexpensive and cost-effective, said public information officer Emily Randel.

“In general it’s been very positive,” she said. “It was a very low investment for us and I think people really appreciate it. Staff uses it, frankly. We go back and view it as well.”

She said the city bought a small portable camera and tripod at a local store and she sets it on top of their audio-visual cabinet. The video is available on YouTube and people can watch in real time or later, through a link from the city’s website.

Mission Mayor Steve Schowengerdt said a constituent just recently mentioned to him how much she appreciated it.

“It’s hard for some people to get down for the meetings,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a big cost, but it’s worth it.”

Prairie Village looked at Mission and wanted to do that, but feared it would strain staff resources to have a person videotape every council meeting, said City Adminstrator Wes Jordan. The city now thinks it can find an automated system that won’t require staff time and that could accomplish the goal for about $3,500 for equipment and an annual cost of no more than $2,000 for the livestreaming and video recording platform.

“This has been a discussion about becoming more transparent, recognizing that people have an interest who may not be able to attend a meeting,” Jordan said. “We remain hopeful we’ll be able to do it. We’re working on it right now.”

©2017 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.