Akron, Ohio, Considers Officially Broadcasting City Meetings on Facebook Live

Legislation was introduced on Monday that would add live-streaming of public meetings to a $57,000-per-year contract with WhiteSpace Creative.

by Doug Livingston, Akron Beacon Journal / April 13, 2017
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(TNS) -- Residents who want to see or hear how their taxes are going to be spent should follow Councilwoman Tara Mosley-Samples on Facebook.

Right now, she’s the only one in Akron, Ohio, consistently broadcasting what council does every Monday. And, after demonstrating that it costs nothing and requires little more than pointing a smart phone at the action, her proposal to hand over the job to a marketing company already hired by council might not fly.

Mosley-Samples introduced legislation Monday that would add live-streaming of public meetings to a $57,000-per-year contract with WhiteSpace Creative.

Bob Zajac, who runs the public relations company in Akron, is up to the task. He and an employee already attend the meetings. All they would need to do is set-up a free Facebook account (city council already has a Twitter handle) and click the “live” button when the app is open on any smart device with a camera.

Zajac would charge nothing more. The contract already requires him to “attend and record video of weekly City Council meetings and post the video.” What’s holding up some on council, however, is Zajac’s request for a wall-mounted camera that he could swivel remotely to capture the action. Plus, “the city would have to hard-wire this chamber. I would not want to risk going live with Wi-Fi,” he told council.

His concern: If the connection fails, so goes the footage.

“I’ve never had a problem with the Wifi,” said Mosley-Samples, who live streams from her chair.

Having already shopped around, Zajac said it would cost $10,000 to $15,000 to install wiring and the camera, and two television monitors that could display to the public what council members are seeing on their city-issued iPads.

Beyond the equipment, “our costs would not be any different,” said Zajac.

Actually, the costs may be nothing. Mosley-Samples proved this when she asked two members of her church to live stream last Monday’s activity using a smart phone and a tablet, demonstrating that it can be done for free and without interruption.

“I don’t understand how this can’t cost anything,” said Councilman Donnie Kammer, who agreed that “transparency is good government.” Still, he cited policeman without tasers, crumbling cruisers and broken city elevators. “I’m not comfortable spending anymore money on the third floor (of City Hall) or any other floor until we take care of other parts of the city.”

Worth it?

Council signs off on nearly $1 billion in public spending each year, a little at a time each Monday — except holidays — on the third floor of City Hall (166 S. High St.).

Residents show up at 7 p.m. when legislation is bundled and approved, often with little or no discussion. Often, attendees take turns complaining on a microphone for three minutes or less about what council has or hasn’t done.

Rarely anyone show up at 1:30 p.m. when most people are at work. But these afternoon sessions hold the deliberative discussions behind the sweeping up-or-down votes taken later that night.

This Monday, as the sixth and final committee met to discuss Mosley-Samples’ live-streaming proposal, only four people sat in the audience: Zajac, his Whitespace employee and two reporters.

A reporter heard Councilman Bob Hoch say, “I can’t imagine that we’re going to have a lot of people watching a Monday afternoon meeting.”

Mosley-Samples explained that her video post last week garnered 219 views while the meeting was still happening and 953 more afterward. More might watch it if uploaded each week to YouTube and shared in a link on Twitter, Mosley-Samples said after explaining to some colleagues about how social media platforms work in tandem to communicate and cross-brand content.

Minding manners

Council eventually decided to take up the proposal in a week when the Mike Freeman, chair of the budget committee and absent Monday, would be there to weigh in.

When they take it up again, they’ll have to address the vitriol and criticism that pervades social media. Videos of their meetings, like news articles about them, will undoubtedly draw unsolicited comments with vulgar language.

“I don’t think it’s right,” said Keith, who always reminds the public of the work they miss in the afternoon sessions. “If we do this, I think we should remember the decorum of these chambers and how they are reflected.”

Councilman Russ Neal openly supported the plan, as did council members Linda Omobien and Zack Milkovich — two of five on the budget committee, which decides next week whether the proposal gets a full-council vote one of these Monday nights.

“This is about empowering people with their government so they can participate,” Neal said. “We’ve got to step into the future, folks.”

Neal suggested there are ways around online comments that, in distaste, derail constructive conversations. Turning to the two reporters in the room, he suggested that they ask the public to come down and live-stream the proceedings.

Only those in the room know how the reporters responded.

©2017 the Akron Beacon Journal (Akron, Ohio) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.