Many local governments are not holding public meetings remotely during the current stay-at-home order, despite the passage of House Bill 197 signed into law on March 27, allowing Ohio communities to do just that during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The City of Chardon, South Russell Village, Munson Township, Hunting Valley, Moreland Hills, Orange Village, the Geauga Park District and local boards of education all have streamed public meetings and made them available to residents.
But Geauga Commissioners, Auburn, Village of Burton, Burton Township and Russell currently lack the ability to offer the public real-time virtual access meetings.
County and community officials said there are several barriers preventing them from livestreaming meetings for remote viewing and participation, ranging from lack of technology infrastructure or budget to the difficulty of making records available publicly.
“As long as it’s meeting the legal requirements, that’s really what everyone needs to be looking at,” Geauga County Commissioner Tim Lennon explained. “There have been some initial challenges. This is new for everybody. This just happened two weeks ago, that order came out. So it’s going to take some time for everybody to kind of figure out how to operate it.”
Chardon Clerk of Council Amy Day was in charge of getting her city’s public meetings set up on the Zoom platform. “It was pretty easy,” she said. “Their website is great, thorough, lots of tutorials. So pretty much any question you have, you can research it through their website.”
Mrs. Day said the City Council has worked with GTV in the past to record meetings because they value public input and want to inform them of any action taken. “I believe they’ve always had that mindset of open access and making sure everybody has the information,” she said of city council members.
Chester Township Trustee Walter “Skip” Claypool, who previously worked as a technology executive for General Motors, disagreed. Zoom, he said, isn’t great for public meetings because managing the program, especially when there’s a large number of attendees, can be distracting.
“Technology ages and the whole industry changes,” Mr. Claypool said. “That’s part of the dilemma. Who in your office is going to update the software, update the drivers, keep all that stuff current so that it’ll keep working?”
In addition to maintaining a camera and a subscription to a livestream service, he said, any community that streams meetings and keeps recordings of them will also be responsible for making those recordings available in the future in compliance with the Ohio Public Records Act. Training employees to make records available and preserving databases have their own associated costs.
Mrs. Day said even without a technical background, she is comfortable with making meeting recordings available to the public because Zoom handily stores them on a cloud. All she has to do is send out a link whenever someone asks to see a past meeting recording.
The only challenge Mrs. Day said she encountered was setting up employees’ Zoom accounts. It was time-consuming and there was the occasional connection problem,
Mr. Claypool named attendance as another roadblock to streaming meetings remotely. “Going to trustee meetings, even for myself, is like watching paint dry,” Mr. Claypool said. “They’re not the most exciting thing in the world. Do I want to spend whatever we’re going to spend to benefit the few people that may want to watch it? That’s part of the question to ask.”
Still, Chester Township Board of Trustees was set to livestream its first meeting via Zoom at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday (April 23). Chester Trustee Ken Radtke said anyone who is interested in attending can email Administrative Assistant Mary Lou Florentine at email@example.com and ask for the meeting link.
Mr. Lennon said it is up to each municipality to weigh the needs of its residents against the costs required to make meetings available remotely.
Mr. Lennon asked if it is possible to get everything done at meetings without meeting in person. Some aspects of the political decision-making process have a physical layer that just can’t be circumvented.
“From the county’s standpoint, we would still conduct meetings as normal,” Mr. Lennon said. “It wasn’t so much getting it set up but how to conduct the meeting, and statutorily we still have signatures that need to be done. I’m president of the Board of Geauga County Commissions and my signature still needs to be on these documents to move forward. So, regardless, there’s going to be human interaction at some point. I think it’s up to each individual township and local body to make a decision, whatever works best for them.”