×

Creating virtual interest in public business

Warren, others look to place meetings online

Warren Councilwoman Chery Saffold, D-6th ward, and Councilman Ron White, D-7th ward, discuss legislation during Wednesday's council meeting. The legislators are in favor of having council meeting live broadcast, so residents can view them.

WARREN — City council has voted unanimously to begin the process necessary to livestream council meetings and, perhaps, future committee meetings from council chambers and its caucus room.

The next step is to determine how — and the cost — of doing public business in a way residents can actually see.

Several communities locally and statewide use various methods to access their meetings, including Trumbull and Mahoning counties, Youngstown and Girard.

TODAY IN WARREN

Councilwoman Cheryl Saffold, D-6th Ward, pushed for a vote of approval during a meeting on Tuesday to livesteam the council meetings.

“We are past due on providing this service to the residents of Warren,” Saffold noted. “I have been advocating for this for a number of years but for various reasons, council members were not in favor.”

In 2020 and 2021, Warren, like communities across Ohio, was allowed by state law to conduct business through Zoom and other types of livestreaming due to the COVID-19 pandemic that forced public and private organizations to meet online — because it was unsafe for large groups to meet in the same rooms.

Often these organizations allowed the public to view these meetings on their websites.

Before the pandemic, legislators had the ability to view meetings online, but they could not vote on any legislative action during the meetings if they were not in the room.

When they first began meeting online, several Warren council members complained they did not have the equipment needed to participate from their homes. Others noted the council chambers did not have Wi-Fi capability.

The city recently completed a modernization effort that makes the council chambers Wi-Fi compatible.

“Council has had Wi-Fi capability in its chambers for about three months,” Safety Service Director Eddie Colbert said.

To conduct council’s Zoom meetings, the city provided council one of its technology experts to monitor its equipment as the meetings were taking place, in case of emergency.

EMERGENCY ENDS

When the emergency legislation allowing public entities to conduct business — even when the legislators are not in the same room — ended in July 2021, Warren stopped its Zoom meetings, and people could no longer see the meetings online.

Youngstown City Council also does not livestream its meetings.

“We were having Zoom meetings when council was meeting remotely during the pandemic, but that ended on July 1,” Valencia Marrow, head clerk of council said. “There have been discussions about livestreaming since that time, but our chambers are not conducive to livestreaming.”

Marrow said Youngstown City Council members have discussed livestreaming, but no actions have taken place.

“We would have to have architects come to look at the chambers and select vendors to provide needed equipment to prepare our chambers,” she said. “Nothing formal has been done at this point.”

Girard Mayor James Melfi said the city has not broadcast its council meetings for more than 25 years.

“At that time, we had a high school kid who recorded the city council meetings and a local cable company broadcast the meetings at no cost to the city,” Melfi said. “There has been no recent discussions about broadcasting our meetings.”

Melfi said the council canceled its meetings during the early months of the pandemic. Later, council members stayed socially distanced so meetings could take place.

TWO COUNTIES

The Trumbull County Board of Commissioners does not provide live video streaming of weekly meetings, but residents can listen to the live meetings through a phone bridge that allows county employees and others to listen and participate.

The audio bridge is interactive, so people wanting to address the commissioners have ways to talk to them during the in-person meetings. Department heads and others give reports to the commissioners without going to the meetings.

After the commissioners complete the business portion of the meetings, residents are given the opportunity to speak.

“We have already begun looking at getting quotes to find ways to upgrade our digital software, so we can begin to do both video and audio broadcasts of the meetings,” Commissioner Mauro Cantalamessa said.

Cantalamessa said the phone bridge has been working, but if the commissioners can find ways to do an upgrade, making the meetings more accessible to the public, they will do so.

“We want public participation,” he said.

The commissioners began opening up the meetings through the phone bridge after the pandemic began, and the commissioners began having remote sessions. After the state ordered public organizations to begin meeting in person again, the commissioners decided to continue the phone bridge. It costs the county about $65 per meeting to operate the phone bridge.

One commissioner, Niki Frenchko, often livestreams some portions of the discussions on her personal Facebook page.

“I’ve been asking to livestream the meetings since I’ve been a commissioner,” Frenchko said. “I think it would be good for residents to see exactly what is happening during our meetings. I think more would get done.”

Audrey Tillis, Mahoning County administrator, said the commissioners are not livestreaming their meetings. They are, however, doing Zoom meetings that may be watched by those able to get the meeting link. The Zoom meetings are interactive, so viewers are able to comment on meeting topics during a question-and-answer period.

In addition, Mahoning County places video of the meeting on YouTube, generally between 24 and 48 hours of the meeting’s conclusion.

WHAT COST?

Warren Mayor Doug Franklin in 2013 discussed with a Time Warner affiliate the idea of broadcasting DVD recordings of council meetings on then-Time Warner Cable network Channel 15. Part of the discussion was to have the city working with Warren G. Harding High School students to film the council meeting using the school’s equipment.

Councilwoman Helen Rucker, D-at Large, recently said council was interested, but the plan did not move forward.

Rucker said officials have to determine how much it will cost to purchase the equipment to livestream the meetings, and who would do it.

Councilman Ken MacPherson, D-at Large, already has two vendors lined up that may be able to do the livestream of the meetings and place them on the city’s website.

“I talked to them last year,” MacPherson said.

Saffold provided council a list of 10 Ohio governments that have both larger and smaller populations than Warren that livestream their meetings. The communities have populations that range from 24,600 people to 63,872. She noted that similar-sized Ohio communities, such as Lancaster and Marion, are offering live video broadcasts.

Lancaster’s council President David Uhl said the city has been broadcasting council meetings for many years. Over the last three years, it has contracted with a local production company to also livestream the meetings. Lancaster is a community in central Ohio with a population of about 40,000 people.

“The significance is to provide transparency and access to our meetings to have our meetings online,” Uhl said. “People can watch our meeting live and refer back to them later.”

Uhl, a member of council for six years, said there has been significantly more interest by residents about what has been happening in city government since the meetings have been online.

The cost of service is 10 percent of the city’s cable franchise fee. Uhl emphasized the company does significantly more than just the live broadcasts and archives the council and other related meetings for that cost.

SCHOOL EQUIPMENT

Warren City Schools conducts a Zoom-based YouTube simulcast of its board of education meetings, which can later be viewed through the district’s website.

Superintendent Steve Chiaro said the district decided to upgrade the equipment used by Warren Students Communication Network before the pandemic began in March 2020 to allow students to do more school project activities and increase learning opportunities.

When the pandemic occurred, it was decided to use the equipment to broadcast the board meetings on the school’s YouTube Channel. There are times when students are doing the livestreams and other times when it is done by district employees.

“It has been very successful, and we have no intention of changing what we have been doing,” Chiaro said. “I think there is stronger support for the schools.”

The meeting are not interactive, so viewers are not provided the opportunity to participate by asking questions through the live feed.

NEWSLETTER

Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper? *
     

COMMENTS

Starting at $4.62/week.

Subscribe Today