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Union to stream live meetings post-pandemic

By Christine Simmonds | Apr 07, 2021
Photo by: Christine Simmonds The Union Board of Selectmen hold a meeting April 6 via Zoom.

Union — The Union Board of Selectmen has decided to invest in Town Hall Streams in preparation for a return to in person meetings.

The board made this decision at their April 6 meeting.

Town Hall Streams is an outside service that streams and archives public meetings for a fee.

Town Manager Jay Feyler asked the board to discuss different streaming options. “The public is demanding to be able to sit and watch meetings,” Feyler said.

The board previously discussed streaming meetings before COVID-19 caused them to move to Zoom. At that time, the board decided against streaming to encourage residents to attend meetings in person.

The two options Feyler presented for streaming would still not allow anyone to participate in the meetings. They would only be able to view them live or at a later date after they were archived.

One streaming option the board discussed was the Meeting Owl. This is a device the town already owns that offers streaming video and responds to sound.

Feyler said the biggest downside of the owl is that it requires a dedicated operator. “There’s no way I can run it and participate in the board,” he said.

Another problem with the program is it would not pick up citizens in the back of the room.

For these reasons, Feyler recommended the board authorize him to budget funds for Town Hall Streams.

Town Hall Streams, Feyler explained, is a service that does not require any additional equipment. The town tells the company the dates and times of the meeting. The company records the meetings, then uploaded to a cloud service.

The company also provides and installs all necessary equipment. The camera faces the audience and the microphone is wide-range.

Feyler suggested the option that covers two to four meetings each month for $150, and archive the videos for one year. While there is an unlimited meeting option, Feyler said he does not think the town would need that.

Union has two board of selectmen meetings each month, and occasionally a planning board meeting each month.

Board member Adam Fuller, who spoke out against streaming meetings when it came up before, said he would support using Town Hall Streams.

“We are pretty far down this rabbit hole and I don’t think we can put this genie back in the bottle,” Fuller said. He understands many Union citizens were happy being able to attend meetings from the comfort of their homes.

Fuller said he especially liked the idea of archiving meetings for future viewing. Some topics the board discusses can span the course of multiple meetings. This service would allow residents to catch up on the topic when they came up for discussion again.

Fuller further suggested the town pay for the unlimited service and begin streaming committee meetings. Many people may not have time to be on a committee, but would be interested in watching the meetings, Fuller said.

The unlimited contract is $250 per month. It offers five years of online storage and indexed chapters. If someone viewing the content was only interested in a certain topic being discussed, they would be able to fast forward to that part of the meeting.

Board member Josh White agreed residents would want continued access to meetings online. White said he liked this service would still mean people had to attend in person to do business with the board.

Board member Bill Lombardi also agreed that residents now expect more online access as part of the services offered by a municipality.

“Just like people binge on a Netflix show, they can binge on town committee meetings,” Lombardi said.

White agreed with Lombardi’s sentiment. “If someone’s going to binge, they might as well binge on us,” White said.

Board member Martha Johnston-Nash admitted she was playing devil’s advocate, but asked if streaming videos of committee meetings would discourage residents from joining committees.

Feyler said committee meetings were being recorded currently anyway.

“If someone is not willing to say it on video, they shouldn’t say it,” Fuller said.

Resident Karen Poulin spoke about how the library has been using Zoom for their programs, and had those videos available for viewing on their website. Zoom allows those at home to interact with the program, whereas a streaming service would not, Poulin said.

However, town boards and committees are only able to meet over Zoom right now due to the state of emergency declared by Governor Janet Mills.

Thirty days after the state of emergency has ended, municipalities will no longer be able to hold fully remote public meetings.

Remote participation would be allowed for audience members, but for board members to vote they have to be in the same room.

Resident Catherine Meyer asked if the streaming service had closed captions. Meyer is hard of hearing and has accommodations with the board currently, including accessing recordings of the meetings and microphones during in person meetings.

Feyler said it did not have closed captions, but the town could hire a third party to do that.

Meyer said those third party services do not work after 5 p.m.

Fuller suggested Meyer could use a free closed caption program instead of the town hiring a third party. “They’re not 100%, but they’re free and they’re pretty good.”

Feyler said he would add the premium service to the budget, and it did not require a vote.

In other business, the board approved $7,850 for extended warranties for Public Works vehicles.

Board Chair John Shepard said while this was expensive, it was a value for the town. “Our trucks lead a tough life,” Shepard said.

The board also set the date for the next road workshop, which will be May 3 at 6 p.m.

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Comments (1)
Posted by: David Poulin | Apr 08, 2021 08:55

I was misquoted in this article. What I actually said was that Vose Library has been using Zoom for their programs (not meetings). The Wednesday evening Zoom programs have been very popular, and an important feature is the ability of attendees to interact with comments and questions. Soon after the event, video recordings of Vose Library programs are posted for viewing on YouTube.

Karen Poulin

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