By Roxie Hammill
Streaming video of Overland Park City Council meetings may be available as early as April. A city council committee decided Wednesday to take the first step toward a video record of meetings that could be easily accessed by the public.
That first step will likely use existing cameras at the back of the council chambers to broadcast regular council meetings, at a cost of $5,000 or less. Any presentations put on the chambers TV screens would not be shown, however, and there would be no closed captioning.
The set-up was considered a minimum effort that will buy the council some time to explore better and more expensive options that involve archiving and indexing council and committee meetings.
Having a video feed and record of city meetings was a campaign promise of new council member Logan Heley, who has been airing council meetings on his Facebook page since Jan. 22 with the help of high school students, a cell phone and a borrowed tripod.
The idea is also supported by council member Paul Lyons. Lyons put the question before six members of the council’s Finance, Administration and Economic Development committee.
Many other cities, counties and school districts routinely video record their meetings. A staff presentation at the meeting showed that only one city out of 24 surveyed did not provide a video of its meetings. Prairie Village recently joined the ranks of NEJC municipalities that make videos of their meetings available online.
Currently, Overland Park does not provide a video. But an audio CD can be picked up on request from the city clerk. A special computer program available as a free download is necessary to listen to the CD.
Heley and Lyons say they want to modernize the system, eventually recording planning commission and council committee meetings as well.
City staff noted that Novus Agenda, which does the city’s agenda system, has a video partner called Swagit Productions. Adding Swagit services would cost $60,000 up front plus $2,500 to $5,000 a month, depending on the number of meetings and their length. But that service would be more professional than the existing cameras and would allow closed captioning and an index link between the agenda and the related part of the video.
Some committee members said they wanted a good, professional video record. But they then became mired in a lengthy discussion of the possible pitfalls of the idea, with questions about how long the videos should be stored, the relationship to legal minutes and the need for translating or closed captioning.
Committee chairman Dave White said storage of the videos could be costly, as cities have found out with police body camera recordings.
Council member Rick Collins also questioned whether the benefits would be worth the costs. “Given the current state of affairs with regard to the words ‘transparency’ and ‘accountability,’ to say that we’re against that would be like saying we’re against motherhood and apple pie,” he said.
But Collins questioned whether many people would actually tune in. “We’ve got a population of 190,000 and if we’ve got 500 people that are watching this thing and the average duration of their viewing is 30 seconds, I’m not so sure I would go down that road.”
Collins also said the city would have to decide what to do if speakers got out of hand during the meetings.
“We’ve had some tense moments at some of these meetings, and is there a way to shut it off?” He said he was not advocating censorship, but wanted to consider what to do if “something gets really violent.”
Heley has been airing the council meetings since he took office as a Facebook Live event. He said the Jan. 22 meeting reached 3,471 people, with 1,254 unique viewers, with the average watch time of 23 seconds.
Preoccupation with viewership is “missing the point a little bit,” Heley said. “What I’ve seen especially with Shawnee Mission School District is that when you start live streaming these meetings, you get the response, ‘Oh wait. I can come to the council meeting?’” he said. “It just opens it up.”
Video accessibility is expected especially by younger voters, Heley said. “When you talk to folks (campaigning) that have any sort of complaint about the city if you tell them we live-stream the meetings, that gives them less ammunition to complain because we’re adding opportunities to participate.”
“I think the times are a changing,” said Lyons. “More people are interested in this now. And the argument that we previously have had that nobody every watches this stuff, I don’t believe is true anymore.”
One resident, Dave Willig, sat through two hours of previous agenda items so he could speak up for video recordings. Willig, a 32-year resident of Overland Park, said he has been asking council members about videos for the past couple of years.
“You guys have a good story to tell,” he said. “I hope you don’t kick this down the road.”