This is the third 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 II published on Thursday.
MOUNT VERNON — The City of Mount Vernon has been broadcasting public meetings for decades.
Terry Scott, the city’s auditor since 1995, said it began in the early 1980s. The local radio station owned a cable company, Scott said, and it would broadcast city meetings live on a public access TV channel.
“You could sit right at home and watch city council on TV, like you were watching a movie,” Scott said with a chuckle.
Time Warner Cable bought the cable company and continued the service until the late 1990s. When it decided to stop broadcasting meetings, Scott said, the city had a choice. It could find a way to continue the service, or it could simply move on. Scott said then-mayor Richard Mavis was determined to keep it going.
“Dick Mavis was always supportive of it,” Scott said. “We could have not done it, but he felt it was important on behalf of the community (to keep it going). Not everyone can come to City Hall and sit through a whole meeting.”
City officials had already been looking for a way to move their meeting paperwork (including agendas, legislation, etc.) online, Scott said. This gave them the opportunity to kill two birds with one stone.
The city partnered with Granicus, an online government communications platform, to accomplish both objectives.
The city would be able to continue broadcasting its meetings through the platform — a camera, set up in the corner of the meeting room, would live-stream video and audio to the website. Officials would also be able to upload all meeting-related documents to one location online.
All of this information – current and past live-stream links, meeting documents and more – would be stored in one place. Scott said the move centralized, streamlined and modernized what used to be a cumbersome process, involving floppy disks and piles of documents.
It also allowed the public to continue watching – albeit online, instead of on TV.
The city used this software for roughly 25 years. Then, near the end of 2022, local leaders decided it was time to upgrade yet again.
A new era
Mayor Matt Starr said that after two-and-a-half decades, the Granicus approach to live-streaming had become outdated. And like Mavis, he wanted to continue the service, in an effort to keep the public informed and involved.
“It’s part of that transparency. And from a production standpoint, it’s another kind of storytelling, if you will,” said Starr, who ran his own video production company before becoming mayor. “It’s meant to put the citizen there who can’t make it.”
Starr said that even before he became mayor in 2020, he envisioned the city one day live-streaming its meetings on YouTube. Now, that dream has come true.
The city worked in 2022 to make the transition, purchasing new equipment and planning for the future.
It spent roughly $7,500 on new technology (and its instillation), including three professional-grade, ceiling-mounted live-streaming cameras; the ceiling mounts themselves; a joystick controller for the cameras; a multi-channel live-streaming switcher; a back-up multi-channel live-streaming switcher; SDI to HDMI converters; an ethernet switch; an HD base extender; an HDMI splitter; an audio converter; and other miscellaneous networking items.
City Council also approved $7,500 in the 2023 budget for a new contractor position. The person who fills this position on a meeting-by-meeting basis is responsible for producing the live-stream for City Council meetings.
They are tasked with not only manning the broadcast – toggling back and forth between camera angles, depending on who’s speaking; zooming in and out; adjusting sound levels; and displaying graphics when necessary – but also pre- and post-production work, such as preparing graphics for speakers and making sure all files are backed up on a separate hard drive, for record-keeping purposes.
The contractor is paid $150 to $250 per meeting, depending on how long it lasts. Starr said this is the standard pay rate for a half-day of work in the industry, and producing City Council meetings typically requires four hours of work.
Bruce MacPherson, who worked with Starr at Kokosing River Productions for over a decade (Starr has since stepped down from his role at the company to focus on mayoral work), has served as the city’s contractor for the last two council meetings.
Starr said he reached out to MacPherson after the city advertised for the position and no applications were submitted.
Sitting at the back of council chambers Monday night, in-between committee meetings and the legislative session, MacPherson called producing the broadcasts “super simple and easy to do.”
So, how does it work?
“Audio coming from the microphones (in front of each council member) is run to what’s called ATEM MiniPro, by Black Magic. It’s a switcher; basically, all it does is it allows us to switch between cameras,” said MacPherson, pointing to the black control board at his desk.
“We have three cameras mounted in the ceiling. They are controlled robotically and remotely with what’s called a PTZ controller. So that allows me to get different angles, to zoom in on someone who’s talking — versus the old technology, which was a very small box, one angle way in the back, and you kind of just have to go with the audio.
“This allows us to add more context to what’s being said, who’s saying it, reactions in the council chambers and whatnot.”
The ATEM MiniPro is connected to the city’s YouTube channel. Once the contractor hits the “On Air” button, MacPherson said, the live-streaming begins.
“This allows us to be a one-stop shop,” MacPherson said. “If all goes well, we hit two buttons and we’re on the air, and it’s super simple and easy to (do). Anyone can do it.”
The city would have paid Granicus $8,000 in 2023 to continue using its live-streaming software, Starr said. Instead, the city dropped that contract, began live-streaming on YouTube (which is free), and used the money to pay for the contractor position.
The city is still paying Granicus $8,600 this year to house its meeting agendas and minutes, but Starr said it will soon be switching to Legistar, a newer platform.
Starr predicts the city will get “at least 15 years” out of the newly-purchased live-streaming equipment, although it’s hard to tell because all the technology is new. The city saved money with this technology long-term, he said, as certain purchases allowed the city to consolidate resources and limit staffing.
“We went with the PTZ cameras to be able to have one person produce the meeting and not have to hire additional camera operators for shot framing and composition,” Starr said. “Also, that would have necessitated the need for a communication system for a camera crew.”
Starr and MacPherson are currently working on developing a training manual for the city’s clerks, so the city will be able to live-stream public meetings where no contractor is present (such as meetings of the Municipal Planning Commission, Historic Review Commission, Board of Zoning Appeals and more).
As for council meetings, Starr said manual production is required. He views it as an opportunity to get more people involved with local government.
MacPherson, a graduate of the Knox County Career Center, will likely not be the city’s only contractor, Starr said. He anticipates forming a pipeline between the city and Mount Vernon Nazarene University’s communications program, while also working with interested students at Mount Vernon High School.
Olivia Stein, a junior at MVHS and a member of the Mayor’s Youth Council, shadowed MacPherson during Monday’s meeting with the hope of one day doing the job herself.
“There are people who will jump at this opportunity,” Starr said. “It’s just another way they can serve the community.”
An investment in transparency
Starr said early results have been “positive.” Because of the city’s new technological set-up, residents are now able to see who’s talking during meetings. They’re also able to view items being discussed, such as graphics or powerpoint presentations.
“It’s just better quality and more reliable (than the old system),” Starr said. “That was one piece of feedback we got from citizens – they couldn’t tell who was talking. So a little investment in tech helped us do that.”
The investment allowed Mount Vernon to continue doing what it’s done for decades in broadcasting public meetings. Starr believes the tradition is important to uphold, even if it may bring about additional scrutiny from the public.
“I know the power of video and how it can be used to connect people,” Starr said. “Having the opportunity to tune in from halfway around the world, or being able to retrieve that footage – even if you can’t make it in person, you can always go back and watch it again. And people do that. They will quote you on what you say in these meetings.
“That’s something that’s part of the job in public service, and you have to be thoughtful about what you do and what you say, as we all should.”
Starr’s advice to other municipalities considering live-streaming their meetings? Don’t overcomplicate things.
“You don’t have to swing for the fence. You can get something going relatively inexpensively, as long as you have an IT person that can get you connected to it. You might as well take advantage of all the free software and streaming services that anyone can take advantage of to communicate with the world,” Starr said, adding that prioritizing “good audio” is crucial to a broadcast’s success.
“Just get something going, and look at how other communities do it. I watched other communities’ council meetings, and so you could see what they did to be able to tell that story. Look at other communities and what (their broadcasts) look like – I wanted ours to look like this – and then you know what type of equipment and investment you’re going to need. But start small in the meantime.”