Town Council moves toward online streaming of meetings

Friday, Feb 12, 2016

Bluffton Town Council appears poised to begin streaming its meetings live on the town government website later this year, though the meetings likely won’t be stored and available online for on-demand viewing.

Council directed town manager Marc Orlando on Thursday to include cameras and other equipment upgrades necessary for the service in the proposed budget for next fiscal year, which begins July 1.

During the final day of council’s annual strategic planning workshop, council members were generally in favor of streaming the meetings online. Several said doing so would benefit residents who aren’t able to attend but have interest in them and that it could help improve the town’s transparency.

“Whatever we can do to make ourselves more transparent to the public is a good thing,” Councilman Larry Toomer said.

Mayor Lisa Sulka said she supported the idea, but cautioned that cameras could have unintended consequences. Recording meetings could cause people to either censor themselves or be theatrical during discussions, she said.

The issue of broadcasting town meetings was raised last fall by Beaufort County Councilwoman Cynthia Bensch, who ran unsuccessfully for mayor against the incumbent Sulka. Bensch has repeatedly called on the town to broadcast and record its meetings to keep residents better-informed.

Currently, Beaufort County Broadcast Services broadcasts and records for on-demand viewing more than 400 County Council, county committee, school board and Hilton Head Island Town Council meetings on the County Channel and the county website each year, broadcast manager Scott Grooms said Thursday.

Hilton Head spent roughly $25,000 on equipment in 2013 for its meetings to be broadcast and recorded and pays the county another $22,500 for the broadcasting service, Grooms said. He added the county would be interested in offering the same services to Bluffton.

“The equipment is expensive these days, but it could be done very easily,” Grooms said. “The transition would be easy. With Hilton Head, once everything was in place, we did one test run and we were ready to go.”

But Orlando and Mayor Lisa Sulka, said they preferred the less expensive and less labor-intensive approach of just streaming the meetings live.

Orlando noted council meetings are audio-recorded.

“I think with the whole issue of trying to save and archive the videos online, we’ve got to consider what we’re trying to accomplish by doing that,” he said. “If anyone ever wants to come in and read the minutes or listen to a discussion on the tapes, we’ve always done that.”

But Grooms said the county’s on-demand service has proven popular since it started streaming in 2011.

Since Jan. 1, 2013, the service has gotten more than 357,000 hits, he said.

“For a county this size, that’s a fairly substantial amount,” Grooms said.

Town information technology director Tommy Sunday said the town would be able to track the number of people viewing the live stream of meetings through analytics.

Councilman Dan Wood said that measurement would be an important component of the service. He and Toomer suggested the town keep open the possibility of adding more broadcast capabilities as part of a planned $3.5 million renovation of Town Hall.

“There have been a lot of requests over the years for us to televise the meetings (through the County Channel),” Wood said. “I think we’ve got to start somewhere, but we need to promote this and get the word out. And if we do it for a while and it’s not working, maybe when we do the new building, we make arrangements where we do start televising them.”


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