This is the second in a three-part solutions journalism series about how – and why – local municipalities are live-streaming their public meetings. Part I published on Wednesday; Part III will publish on Friday.
GAMBIER — Gambier didn’t begin live-streaming its public meetings until the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
And according to Village Administrator R.C. Wise, it doesn’t plan to stop any time soon.
“We’ve kind of decided, without a formal vote of council, that it’s a good tool,” Wise said. “Usually, the people on Zoom outnumber the people who show up in-person.”
It was an idea born out of necessity, Wise said. The village needed to continue to meet, and let the public be a part of those meetings, despite the health crisis. Zoom was one way to make that happen.
“We started doing Zoom meetings as soon as we couldn’t have public meetings where we could get together,” Wise said. “So I’d say we might have missed one or two council meetings in the spring of 2020, and then we got the (technology) put together in May or June.”
The village used roughly $12,000 in CARES Act funding to cover the purchase and installation of a 72-inch flatscreen TV, a camera, and internet connectivity software. The village also voted to spend roughly $20 per month on a Zoom subscription, Wise said, which would allow it to broadcast meetings for as long as needed (the free version cuts sessions off after 35 minutes).
The operation runs like clockwork, Wise said. Here’s how it works:
Mayor Leeman Kessler controls the mouse during the meetings. He logs onto the village’s Zoom account through his laptop and has the ability to start and stop sessions.
The camera, placed high on one wall of the village’s meeting room, is connected to Kessler’s laptop. It captures video and audio from the room. Once the mayor begins a meeting, viewers at home can see and hear the meetings from a birds-eye view.
The village advertises its public meetings – and the Zoom option for attendance – on its website. Residents can click on the Zoom link next to the meeting to attend.
Once the meeting begins, residents are encouraged to participate in the meetings virtually. The TV, placed on the same wall as the camera, is used to not only show pertinent documents and drawings during discussions, but also to display comments from the public.
Those attending the meeting on Zoom are invited to ask questions in the chat box, and Wise said village officials regularly take time to answer them, just as if the residents were attending the meeting in-person.
“We do take questions and comments from the audience,” Wise said. “We have a spot in our agenda for visitors’ comments, and the mayor will take comments from people in the virtual and in-person audience.”
Wise said there have been few hangups with the process over the last year and a half.
“I didn’t think it was that difficult,” Wise said. “The most difficult thing has been getting it scheduled on time. With the CARES Act, we had to spend all this money by November (2020). So everybody was doing the same thing, and that might have caused a delay.
“But I’d think, unless there’s a chip shortage on a certain piece of equipment, I don’t see that many barriers now.”
Using Zoom to broadcast public meetings has made it easier for the public to participate, Wise said. He doesn’t anticipate the service ending anytime soon.
“For a lot of people, this makes it easier. They can make dinner and listen to the council meeting at the same time,” Wise said with a chuckle. “I know it sounds kind of weird, but most people get dressed up, they get here early, and there might only be one item on the agenda where they want to see what happens, and it might be at the end of agenda.
“If you’re at home, you can turn it on and then you can be doing other things. And when we get to that point in the agenda, you can tune in and participate. It’s been very helpful.”