Some Struggle to Livestream Meetings During Crisis

Twice in recent weeks, the city council in Norton, Ohio, was forced to cancel public meetings due to technical difficulties. Like others, the council has shifted during the coronavirus crisis to livestreamed meetings.

by Alan Ashworth, Akron Beacon Journal / June 1, 2020
Kalamazoo, Mich., held a council meeting online April 2. Courtesy City of Kalamazoo, Mich.

(TNS) — Twice last week, Norton, Ohio, City Council was forced to cancel public meetings due to technical difficulties.

Like other public entities, the council has shifted during the coronavirus crisis to livestreamed meetings.

Software used for that purpose is designed for group gatherings from business conferences to public and private meetings. Different entities use different software.

But technical glitches forced the council to cancel meetings on Tuesday and Thursday.

City Council President Joe Kernan said Friday that a "perfect storm" of events doomed the two meetings, but Norton isn't alone.

On March 27 as the coronavirus crisis intensified, the Ohio Assembly passed legislation granting authority to conduct public meetings by livestreaming on the internet.

The legislation requires that "The public body shall ensure that the public can observe and hear the discussions and deliberations of all the members of the public body, whether the member is participating in person or electronically."

For entities that are new to livestreaming, that's sometimes difficult to achieve.

Barberton City Council, for instance, has been able to livestream their meetings so far. But audio quality is sometimes so poor that viewers aren't able to hear what council and administration members are saying.

The video takes place in council chambers where a handful of council members and city officials attend in person. Members present at the meeting remotely can't be seen.

The city is working to fix the audio problem, but it hasn't been a quick fix.

On Thursday, the Barberton Board of Education meeting was delayed about 30 minutes due to technical difficulties. When the meeting was posted, incorrect names were attached to images of some members onscreen. Other attendees weren't imaged.

Barberton schools Superintendent Jeffrey Ramnytz could not be reached Friday to discuss the problems.

Some cities are pros with the technology.

Green Communications Manager Valerie Wolford said via email Friday that the city has been livestreaming council and other meetings for about seven years.

Images are crisp and sound quality is good for the meetings.

The city uses a combination of Granicus and Microsoft Teams for the videos. Microsoft Office is used to connect virtually.

The council president and video production staff are on-site in council chambers.

"All other staff — [the] remaining six council members, mayor and city directors connect via [Microsoft] Teams to the meetings," Wolford said.

The administration has also been using Microsoft software to coordinate its "Green Together" initiative during the coronavirus crisis.

Kernan said Norton's difficulties began on Tuesday with a Zoom software account that had been downgraded.

The action kept council from livestreaming the meeting and led to the first cancellation. The city is investigating why the downgrade occurred.

On Thursday, the city tested its software to ensure the broadcast would go forward without a hitch.

A test run earlier in the day went smoothly, Kernan said. "Everything was fine."

But troubles began when the meeting was supposed to be broadcast at 7 p.m.

"We worked at it for a half hour and we could not get the livestream to work," Kernan said. "I decided that we were going to stop the meeting and reschedule it for Monday."

Kernan said it was later determined that a Youtube policy prevented another livestreaming effort that day.

"We had exceeded the number of times we could do a livestream with Youtube," he said. "We had no idea."

Kernan said the good news is that city services like road paving, police and fire continue unimpeded by the livestreaming difficulties. But he said it's frustrating, especially since the city has videoed meetings before.

On Monday, council will meet in chambers while maintaining social distancing guidelines and wearing personal protective equipment. A couple of council members will attend remotely, Kernan said.

"It certainly is stressful because council wants to take care of the business of Norton," he said.

©2020 the Akron Beacon Journal (Akron, Ohio). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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