People hoping to watch meetings of the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors from somewhere other than Lane Auditorium in 2015 are out of luck.
Supervisors split 3-3 in a Dec. 10 vote to move forward with a plan to video stream their proceedings as well as School Board meetings.
Proponents said the service would increase access to meetings where important decisions are made. The county currently provides an audio-only stream, which has reached as many as 200 people at a time.
“I [have] had so many people complain they wanted us to have a video stream because they couldn’t tell who was talking and they didn’t know what was going on when they tried to just listen,” said Supervisor Liz Palmer.
Opponents were concerned that the added expense would not create citizen engagement.
“It costs money and it creates another layer of technology which can fail and cause some frustration,” said Supervisor Kenneth C. Boyd.
The request to begin video streaming was part of a larger campaign to make it easier for Albemarle residents to know what’s happening in county government.
Supervisors set new priorities at a strategic plan retreat on June 10. One of the goals is “to successfully engage citizens so local government reflects their values and aspirations.”
In October, the board agreed to consider spending more money in “technology resources” to pursue that goal.
“Our challenge and opportunity is to really make that come to light,” said Lee Catlin, the county’s assistant county executive for community and business partnerships.
Catlin said citizen expectations have changed at a time when media coverage has dwindled.
“When I started working for the county, I could do a news release that would get out to the four media outlets we had at the time,” Catlin said. “I could feel like the reach of that was going to be like 90 percent of the county. We know the communications environment is much more noisy now and much more diffuse.”
As a result, Catlin said, the county has to be more agile to communicate with residents.
The county still issues about 15 press releases a month, but has also increased its social media presence as a way to extend its reach.
More than 4,300 people are subscribed to the county’s email list, around 1,900 people “like” the county’s Facebook page, and more than 1,150 follow the official Twitter account.
“None of these numbers [is] huge, but you have to take the combined effort of who we’re reaching and what all the methods are,” Catlin said.
To augment those efforts, Catlin and her staff reviewed pricing and logistics for video streaming.
Catlin said there were two viable options. Under one, the county would hire an outside firm that would use its own cameras to record meetings, which would be archived on YouTube. This would cost an estimated $75,000 a year, based on a quote provided by the firm hired by the Virginia Department of Transportation to broadcast the Route29 Solutions meetings.
“The cost rises if the meetings go beyond the scheduled ending time or if the number of meetings increased,” Catlin said. Another downside is that neither the archive nor the stream would be searchable by agenda item.
The other option, Catlin said, would be to purchase a package that would allow both the video stream and the archive to be synched with the board’s agenda. Similar systems are used across the commonwealth, including in Charlottesville and Lynchburg.
“This is becoming more of a standard,” County Executive Thomas Foley said. “If you go out to most of our benchmark localities, you’re going to see some form of video.”
The estimated cost for a two-camera setup would be a one-time price of $5,900 plus $12,000 to store and maintain the archive. That does not include the cost of paying someone to operate the cameras.
The service would not replace the need for minutes of meetings to be kept. However, the availability of video might mean the county could save money on reducing the level of detail required in official accounts of meetings.
That idea didn’t sit well with Supervisor Ann H. Mallek.
“For old-fashioned people like me, being able to go and get printed records from 20 years ago is incredibly important when you’re trying to find out what really went on,” Mallek said.
Mallek was joined by Boyd and Supervisor Brad Sheffield in voting against the proposal.
“I can’t see video-streaming the board meetings as further engaging the public,” Sheffield said. He added he wanted more information on how the service would actually increase participation.
Both Dittmar and Palmer said they occasionally watch City Council meetings to keep up with what’s happening in Charlottesville government. McKeel said she watches the city School Board meetings.
“We will continue to consider this,” Dittmar said.