IE 11 Not Supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Decatur, Ala., Officials Push to Increase Meeting Livestreams

Decatur City Council members are pushing for the reversal of one city board’s decision not to livestream meetings. The call for increased transparency comes amid some reluctance from some officials to stream public meetings.

shutterstock_public meeting
(TNS) — A surge in livestreaming public meetings that began with the pandemic has not been adopted by all city of Decatur boards, and some officials say transparency demands that all board meetings be livestreamed.

Decatur City Council members Kyle Pike and Carlton McMasters are pushing the new Architectural Review Board to reverse a decision made this month not to livestream meetings.

Councilman Billy Jackson said he tried unsuccessfully in 2021 to get the Personnel Board to livestream its meetings.

"All of our meetings need to be livestreamed," Jackson said. "We need to keep our public in touch with the things we do as much as we possibly can. They need to be livestreamed — not one of them, not two of them, but all of our meetings need to be livestreamed."

Jackson said the decision to livestream is up to the City Council, not the city board or its chairpersons. He said this livestreaming is the best way to fully involve the public in city governance.

"Anyone who is uncomfortable with that situation needs to come off of the board," Jackson said.

Ellis Chenault, who serves on the Architectural Review Board, said he agrees with Jackson "because they're authorized city boards spending city money that came from taxes that citizens paid. They have a right to see the meetings." — Advisory boards

McMasters said only governing boards should livestream their meetings. The city has some boards like Parks and Recreation and Decatur Public Library that shouldn't have to put their meetings online, he said.

"What they're doing is just advisory," McMasters said.

City Council President Jacob Ladner said he agrees that all of the governing boards should livestream their meetings.

"It really doesn't make sense for the advisory boards to have to be livestreamed," Ladner said.

Parks and Recreation Director Jason Lake said he hadn't considered livestreaming Parks and Rec Board meetings, which would have to be moved from Fort Decatur Recreation Center to City Hall if existing video equipment were used.

McMasters said he doesn't think the Personnel Board should livestream its meetings "because of the personnel matters they discuss, and I realize that's kind of hypocritical."

Personnel Board chairman Harold Gilmer said their meetings are open to the public to attend at any time so he doesn't see the need for livestreaming. He added that he is open to a board discussion on livestreaming meetings.

"We often discuss the name and character of an individual that cannot be publicized," Gilmer said.

Jackson said livestreaming and posting the video online allows employees who can't attend Personnel Board meetings while at work to view the meetings later.

"The Personnel Board can go into executive session if something needs to be discussed about an employee in a private setting," Jackson said. "The Sunshine Law provides for that, and a great majority of things discussed don't qualify for an executive session."

Personnel Board member Suzie Wiley said all of the city boards, including advisory boards, should livestream their meetings.

"I think our board and all of the other boards should be livestreamed to be transparent," Wiley said. "We don't say anything really bad that people shouldn't hear." — Architectural board

The council recently formed the Architectural Review Board to reduce the responsibilities of the Historic Preservation Commission (HPC).

This new board focuses on requests to change the exterior of a home in the city's two historic districts, both of which are in District 2. The HPC, which voted to continue livestreaming its meetings, now deals only with historic property issues in the city and isn't limited to one area of Decatur.

The architectural board voted 2-1 in its inaugural meeting on April 13 not to livestream its meetings despite the urging of councilmen Pike and McMasters that they carry them live online.

Board member Bill Stone cast the lone vote in favor of livestreaming meetings.

"Kyle wanted to, so I figured he had a good reason," Stone said. "We did it before (in Historic Preservation Commission meetings), and we had no problem with it."

Chenault, who missed the meeting, said he would have joined fellow member Stone in voting to livestream future meetings, However, Bonnie Crow, who also missed the April meeting, said Tuesday that she has resigned from the Architectural Review Board due to her personal time constraints.

A revote would fail with a 2-2 tie so the decision likely won't change with a new vote unless one of the two members who voted against livestreaming, chairman Jacob Wood or Lynn Schuppert, change their stance.

Wood said Wednesday that he voted against livestreaming meetings "because it's not required." Schuppert was out of town and not available for comment.

Pike, who represents District 2, said he is continuing to push the Architectural Review Board to change its mind and is hoping they will hold a revote at their May 11 meeting.

"A lot of people in my district reached out and said they wish the (Architectural Review Board) would livestream," Pike said. "You're simply just providing transparency."

McMasters said the architectural board is a governing board and transparency is important "because many of the home alterations made in District 2 require their approval."

Pike said public review of historic homeowners' plans is required as part of the approval process.

"This board livestreaming only allows for more public review," Pike said.

McMasters and Pike said livestreaming meetings allows residents to review the meetings so they know what to expect if they have to make a presentation.

For example, Pike said his father, Eddie Pike, watched the HPC (before the split) online several months ago to prepare for a presentation he had to make about a driveway he planned to add at his home.

"He was able to find another case of a driveway online," Pike said. "He watched the meeting to listen to the concerns and questions so he was more prepared."

Chenault said the ability to review meetings "would make the citizens more at ease" before attending a meeting.

Pike said livestreaming is also beneficial to new residents "so they know how the process works and to know what the board is looking for before they go before the board." — Low cost

Pike said the city has the technology and pays only $100 a year to stream video on YouTube and Facebook. The main expense is using Information Technology employees to operate the equipment for just a couple of hours a day, he said.

"The cost burden on the city is not that much," Pike said.

Pike and McMasters said they can't attend every meeting so it helps if they can view meetings online. McMasters said he often reviews online meetings he couldn't attend when he has time during his day at work.

"Every one of those citizens who bring a case before them are in my district so I'm likely going to hear about their case later, especially if they're denied," Pike said of the historic district meetings. "It is important to know what was said and the board's reasoning."

Pike said video also benefits the board if a resident files an appeal of its ruling in Morgan County Circuit Court.

"They have video evidence of what transpired during a hearing," he said.

Chenault said video-recorded meetings help the board "if someone wants to stir up controversy and say something that wasn't said. We simply could review the tape and that solves that issue. It's gospel at that point."

Livestreaming public meetings online through platforms like YouTube and Facebook became common in 2020, during the pandemic, partly due to a liberalization of public meeting rules implemented through executive orders by Gov. Kay Ivey.

Starting in fall 2002, then-Councilman Ray Metzger bought time on WYAM-51 TV, owned by Wiley and her husband, Bill, to carry City Council meetings.

The station carried Decatur City Council and Morgan County Commission meetings until 2016, Wiley said.

The City Council meetings weren't shown live or taped again until the pandemic, when there was an incentive to avoid large gatherings. Council work sessions were also moved from the seventh floor to the first-floor Council Chambers to allow for livestreaming.

Information Technology Director Brad Phillips said the city received about $14,000 in federal relief funds to buy an encoder and cameras. The static equipment is set up in the Council Chambers at City Hall.

Phillips said the city started livestreaming in February 2020 and now livestreams City Council, Planning Commission, Ambulance Regulatory Board and Board of Zoning Adjustments meetings on YouTube and Facebook.

Phillips said they now have 685 subscribers. The city has had 77,498 views, with the July 6, 2020, council meeting getting the high of 4,106 views. This meeting featured the discussion of mandatory masks during the pandemic. The March 6 council meeting last month had 2,200 views, he said.

Athens Mayor Ronnie Marks said the Athens City Council livestreams its meetings but no other boards do. He said the main reason board meetings are not livestreamed is because the city only has three IT employees to cover its many departments.

Decatur City Schools spokeswoman Elizabeth Gentle said school board meetings are livestreamed on Facebook and will likely move to YouTube this summer. Morgan County Schools also carries its school board meetings online.

© 2023 The Decatur Daily (Decatur, Ala.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.