Call to order

Live Webcasts and indexed archives of meetings put municipal governments in touch with citizens

On the Agenda: Viewership of meetings for the city of Hesperia, Calif., has increased since it began Webcasting. Citizens can view meetings live or go to the archives, where agendas provide links to specific discussions or votes.

Webcasting is no longer a novelty for eggheads and kids showing off exploding Pepsi bottles. It's starting to catch the attention of municipal governments as a way to increase transparency and reach more citizens.

In fact, New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer issued an executive order in January requiring that all public meetings be made available by Webcast over the Internet by this summer.

And late last year, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger issued an executive order creating a task force to research ways to extend broadband access to more state residents.

According to Gartner, New York's executive order could galvanize interest in Webcasting, and indeed, many municipalities are adopting such systems.
Webcasting allows legislative meetings and other business to be broadcast live and then archived for on-demand access later.

Time and money

One advantage of such a system is that citizens wishing to view meetings no longer have to purchase DVDs, saving them money and saving the government time.

'We're hoping this will alleviate some of the requests we get to copy meetings to CDs and DVDs,' said Andrew Newell, applications supervisor/project manager for Clark County, Nev., which will soon deploy a Webcasting system from Granicus.

'This is another service to the citizens,' said Christopher Edwards, video specialist for the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government in Kentucky, which will go live with the Granicus system Aug. 21.

'This is a way for people not to have to spend the $10 to buy a DVD copy,' he said. 'They don't have to call us anymore, they don't have to order the DVDs and wait two to three days while we make the copies, and they don't have to come pick it up or wait for it to arrive in the mail. They can just click on the [Web] link at their convenience and watch it right there.'

The city of Hesperia, Calif., has seen an interesting effect resulting from its Webcasting system. 'We're finding we're not getting as many people coming to the meetings, but our viewership ' live as well as archived ' has gone way up,' said Vicki Soderquist, city clerk of Hesperia. 'We see the number of viewers build monthly. We feel like we're reaching more of the community than we have been able to in the past.'

Some systems, including Granicus', feature indexing, which allows viewers to skip to the portion of the program they need to see. Indexing is significant in this application because some meetings can last up to eight hours.

'If you were just interested in the dog park issue, you wouldn't have to sit through a three-hour meeting waiting for the council to talk about a dog park,' Edwards said. 'You would just type in the words 'dog park' and that part of the meeting would come up.'

Webcasting is also important in states and counties that have rural areas without cable TV access.

Lexington-Fayette, for example, has a government access channel that broadcasts meetings and programs such as live traffic reports, but people in outlying areas who don't have cable TV could not take advantage of this service.

'We saw the Web streaming as a way to reach the entire county,' Edwards said.
Once the Webcasting system is up and running, commuters from outlying areas will be able to watch the traffic reports on their computers before leaving home.
Some Webcasting systems, such as the one from Granicus, are designed specifically to integrate with the legislative process.

Granicus offers a minute-taking module that city and county clerks can use during meetings to record motions, roll calls, speaker notes and other business. Each item is then automatically linked to the audio or video recording of the meeting.
Without an automated system, the minutes process can take a long time.

'We're talking three weeks and more to finalize minutes for a meeting,' Newell said. 'We're expecting Granicus to speed that up, and hopefully we can get those done in a day or two, so that would be a big improvement.'

Granicus also features an electronic voting system that integrates with its streaming media and minute-taking module.

Hesperia is already using the voting system, which has significantly improved the city's legislative voting process. Before the system was implemented, clerks had to record individual votes on paper.

'We did a roll call vote on every single item on the agenda,' Soderquist said. 'It was very tiresome.'

Vote counting

With the voting system, each council member has a touch-screen monitor for inputting votes, and the results are displayed on a large backlit screen visible to everyone in the room.

The screen's display is also broadcast on the Webcast.

'It saves so much time since we don't have to record the individual roll call votes,' Soderquist said. 'It's been great for the clerk's office.'

Soderquist also said that because Web streaming is available for anyone to watch, the city government has been able to reduce the amount of material it records in the minutes, resulting in significant time savings in that area as well.

Another advantage of an automated voting system is that it eliminate the possibility of errors because a clerk does not need to interpret and record votes manually.

'With the voting system, the votes are digitally recorded and there's no intermediary,' Newell said.

Voting systems also connect votes to agenda items when a meeting is archived, making it easier for citizens to see all the relevant information in one place.
The voting system 'marries the vote to the agenda item, and the agenda item is married to the video, and all of those are broadcast live and in the archive so viewers can understand what's going on,' Newell said.

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