HOPE — With no public debate and, apparently, no one watching from home, the Hope Select Board axed a fancy, high-tech live-streaming and recording service for town meetings that was installed at the height of the COVID pandemic.

After reviewing months of data collected, studied and presented by Town Administrator Samantha Mank, the board concluded almost no one watches the live streams or recorded meetings and so the $250 per month is a poor use and waste of taxpayer money that must end.

They pulled the plug on the feature-filled service, replete with swiveling camera angles, from Town Hall Streams and opted to test-run in its place the much simpler Zoom meeting service at $15 per month. Both services offer video, audio, live-stream and recording capabilities. If viewership does not improve significantly with Zoom, it too will be discontinued, the board decided unanimously at its Oct. 11 meeting.

Town Hall Streams serves more than 120 towns, cities, school districts and special districts, mostly in the Northeast, according to its website, townhallstreams.com. Of those, about 40 are in Maine, including in Camden, Thomason, Union and Knox County.

Initiated in Hope during the height of COVID when no one was allowed to gather for meetings, the Town Hall Streams service opened select and planning board meetings to folks at home or anywhere with access to the internet, either via live streaming or for later viewing of recorded sessions. Installation was free. And for some months, viewership seemed to make it worth the price even though the numbers were never high except, as with actual meetings, when a topic sparked wide interest.

At most, on rare occasions, maybe 20 persons watched live board sessions or later viewed the recordings, according to town data. And when real face-to-face meetings resumed in late 2021 and continued, viewership via the Town Hall Streams service fell off at times to zero residents.

Select Board Chair Sarah Ann Smith summed it up this way on Oct. 11: “The bottom line is that since things have settled down it’s not much of an exaggeration to say that, at most, one or two people check the recordings for a combined total of about three minutes (of viewing time) for an entire meeting.”

That was enough for board member Charlie Weidman, who almost immediately moved to end the service in order to save money on something no one used.

Colleague Mike Brown opined that residents do not watch unless there is something of interest to them. Then he quipped that perhaps it is the board rather than the subject matter that makes the difference.

“We are a boring crowd I guess, they don’t want to watch us,” he said.

Board members discussed several options that would allow some kind of virtual meetings and recordings to continue. Options included buying a second-hand camera and using the less-expensive Zoom service. But they made it clear that even Zoom would be stopped to save money if residents did not use it.

In the end, the board decided to give Zoom a six-month trial and watch viewer numbers. In the meantime, Mank said all previous and future meetings that are recorded by either service will be archived and available as part of the public record.

The issue of a live-streaming service came up, Mank later explained, during one of the board’s regular two-week budget reviews when it looks at whether taxpayers are getting their money’s worth on services the town provides. The question arose as to whether the Town Hall Streams service was being used. That in turn triggered a review of the numbers and revealed that, except for the town administrator writing minutes and maybe a journalist writing a news story, hardly anyone else was watching.

“I have two feelings on it,” Mank offered. “One is that people will participate in what interests them,” she said, noting official meetings can be pretty routine stuff.

Agendas are available and sent via email and, “if it interests them, they can tune in and participate,” she said. “Just because they are not here in person or on a Zoom, I don’t take it as a lack of participation, it’s just not an agenda item of interest,” she observed.

Smith had a more personal reaction to the dearth of citizen interest in meetings. “I wish more people were involved, it drives me crazy,” she said at the Oct. 11 meeting. “One of the reasons I wanted to do all this (live-streaming) is because I hoped people would get involved, but they don’t.”

Mank suggested in a later interview that to her way of thinking there’s a more important issue when it comes to citizen involvement than the regular select and planning board meetings.

“I am not specifically disheartened,” she said, when residents do not show interest in those meetings; it is the annual town meeting in June that to Mank is the crucial point of citizen participation.

For those, she said, “I really would like there to be more participation, when their vote matters and it’s counted; I would like to see a greater turnout.”

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