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Georgia City Officials Share Challenges of Going Virtual

Since March, residents who watch city government closely have taken a seat in front of computers to join live meetings instead of attending in person, a change that is likely to continue after the pandemic.

by Adrianne Murchison, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution / October 2, 2020
Shutterstock/fizkes

(TNS) — Frequent virtual meetings are a change brought by the coronavirus pandemic that’s likely to stick. Since March, residents who watch their city governments closely have taken a seat in front of their computers to join live meetings instead of attending in person at city hall.

But when technology fails, it’s frustrating to residents who consider their city council meetings regular viewing, said James Drinkard, Alpharetta, Ga., assistant city administrator.

Alpharetta’s technology system for virtual meetings crashed before its Sept. 21 council meeting began, leaving viewers with a no video to access when they searched. Drinkard said he received several emails during the meeting from people asking if it was taking place.

The problem couldn’t be quickly resolved that night. The next day an audio version with occasional muffled voices was provided on the city website. Despite the occasional glitch, Drinkard said some meeting topics have drawn as many as 300 people to the city’s live streaming.

“A lot of technology has changed very rapidly,” Drinkard said. “One of the challenges that I think local governments are going to have to work through is balancing the pressure to upgrade their technology to respond to some of this but have the patience to take that step back and let technology settle (into) this new normal.”

Technical glitches

North Fulton cities have different approaches to virtual viewing and public comment. And attempts to broadcast retreats or town hall meetings offsite has been problematic at times.

Poor acoustics at a Johns Creek forum held in July at a high school gymnasium distorted sound for viewers watching on Facebook live. Viewers had a similar experience along with poor video for a chunk of Roswell City Council’s five-hour strategic planning workshop in September which was streamed from the city’s adult recreation center.

In addition to Alpharetta’s problem, Sandy Springs also experienced a technology failure last month just as a meeting was set to begin, which prevented public viewing.

Alpharetta streams meetings on YouTube Live and the city website using software designed for municipalities.

"At some point we will have to do a rebuild of components that run all of our audio visual behind the scenes, Drinkard said, adding that could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“Blending into one seamless experience was not something our system was designed to do," he said. "Until we replace the system, we probably can’t do meetings where people can participate remotely. And we have to make a decision, is that something that we want to pursue.”

Alpharetta and Johns Creek councils have returned to city hall chambers for regular meetings. The public can attend in person for socially distanced seating.

Johns Creek streams live video of city meetings on its website with relatively close views of speakers and clear audio. The video is taken down from the website immediately following meetings so specific parts can be matched with agenda items, spokesman Bob Mullen said, and brought back later the following day.

Roswell and Sandy Springs stream their city council meetings on Facebook but smaller committee meetings aren’t as convenient. In Roswell, some video for smaller meetings are audio only and available on the city website. Sandy Springs committee meetings can only be viewed live via video conferencing.

“We don’t have the staff to support all the meetings that the city does to shoot all of those,” said Julie Brechbill, Roswell community relations director. “The decision was made years ago by a former council that the meetings that would be broadcast would be City Council meetings and work sessions.”

Public comment

Technology allows municipalities to have people waiting to offer public comment during city council meetings, officials said.

Sandra Sidhom, of Roswell Renters coalition, was a regular at Roswell’s council meetings before the pandemic and she praises the city for virtual meetings despite the challenges. But in the new normal landscape, Sidhom said she often fails to make the 20-minute window of time required to enter the que for virtual public comment at Roswell meetings.

Public comment had differed among the cities during the pandemic. Sandy Springs halted the reading of public comments by the city clerk during the summer, but will start allowing in-person comments for public hearings this month.

Johns Creek devoted more than an hour at meetings for public comment when a controversy on the city’s former police chief was raging.

Drinkard points to Douglasville in Douglas County as a city that has used its technology successfully.

The Douglasville government access platform on YouTube has several shows including a bi-weekly podcast with members of the community. New technology for streaming, implemented about a year ago, prepared the city of about 33,000 people for the challenges of the pandemic, said Douglasville spokesperson Jason Post.

Meetings are streamed live on YouTube and the video is automatically embedded in the city’s website portal. After the city shutdown early in the pandemic, Douglasville started using the meeting platform Zoom to allow for public comment during the meetings.

“It worked well with what we had in place,” Post said. “One of the key things our mayor and council have focused on for a long time is transparency. There’s nothing we’re doing that shouldn’t be open and transparent to the community.”

©2020 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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