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In mid-May, city councilmembers from San Clemente butt heads over the prospects of holding public meetings remotely or in person. The 2-2 vote echoed the larger debate we see happening all over the country: are we ready to reopen and go back to the office, or should be we set on waiting it out?
Editors’ Note: This story is first in a two-part series. The second story explores the cost of city council video and audio streaming. These stories are part of the Voice of OC Youth Media program in which student journalists cover public policy issues. If you would like to submit your own student media or if you have any response to this work, contact Digital Editor Sonya Quick at firstname.lastname@example.org.
With nearly every city hall closed to the public, city officials have needed to focus on video services now more than ever – not only to comply with the law, but also to keep community members connected.
A team of Chapman reporters for the Voice of OC have been looking at online transparency and video uploading since the beginning of this year. The inquiry found that before COVID-19, most cities were already paying attention to the benefits of video streaming, but some were not. Since the start of the statewide lockdown, new discrepancies in video quality, transparency and social distancing compliance have appeared.
As of April 10, eight of the 34 OC cities were holding public meetings over video chat, meaning the whole council was meeting remotely. By April 29 this number rose to 11, and by May 31 it was 13. For cities who didn’t already have adequate video streaming, keeping business as usual became more difficult.
Streaming videos of public meetings has been common practice for local governments for years, proving to be a way to increase accessibility and engagement. Before COVID-19 halted aspects of daily life, some of the cities with the best council meeting streams included Costa Mesa, Fullerton, Huntington Beach and Mission Viejo, based on reviews of videos. Their streams stood out because of clear video and sound quality, easy accessibility and quick uploads.
Several OC cities stream their council meetings on local TV stations, in addition to online. Government access and hybrid public access stations are still common in Orange County, though they are on the decline nationwide because many local franchising authorities (LFAs) don’t require public channels.
Some of the worst cities for video before the crisis were La Palma, Laguna Woods, Rancho Santa Margarita and Stanton, who either only broadcast audio or don’t broadcast on their websites at all. Laguna Woods is unique in that meetings are broadcast on TV but not put online. The city does keep an archive of meeting videos on DVD, which can be checked out by anyone, according to Clerk Yolie Trippy.
Finally, most cities fall somewhere in the middle, where their public meeting videos are easy to find and can be streamed or downloaded depending on preference. Nearly all the cities that stream video use multiple cameras, making it easier to see the speaker.
Some of the problems we ran into had to do with how a stream behaves on different browsers, because browsers without the proper extensions can distort the page. The Orange city council meeting videos, for example, were extremely small when streamed on Safari, making it impossible to see anything. On Chrome however, it functioned perfectly. The same problem occurred with the Orange County Board of Supervisors stream, and can vary among computers, browsers and operating systems.
Gallery of Virtual Orange County Meetings:
COVID-19 has changed the way that meetings occur and video access has become more important. It’s the only way to keep meetings truly public while city halls close their doors.
“Even though our city hall is temporarily closed to the public, we still continue to deliver service to the public as best we can. Of course, there are some limits to that,” said Anaheim’s Chief Communications Officer Mike Lyster. “We will do our best in this period of time to ensure people’s access to their government, but we also look forward to the day when we can meet face to face with our residents and others who want to address their council.”
Cities that embraced social distancing to the fullest streamed video conferences where no council members were in the same room. These cities were and continue using platforms like Zoom and taking public comment electronically.
Some of the best cities for video when social distancing started were Fullerton, Tustin and Mission Viejo, two of which – Fullerton and Mission Viejo – were among the best before the crisis. These cities stand out because they were quick to transition to remote meetings and produce clear videos.
On May 19, Fullerton returned to normal city council meetings. Some officials were wearing masks and clear barriers were put up to separate city staff from the public seating area.
Some of the worst cities for video when social distancing were Stanton and Rancho Santa Margarita, who either only stream audio or don’t stream public meetings at all. These cities were not particularly accessible before the crisis.
Stanton is one of few cities that does not post videos online, but can send audio recordings of meetings to anyone who requests them. This is partially because it is more cost effective and because the city is so small that there isn’t much demand, said Clerk Patricia Vazquez. There hasn’t been an uptick in participation or public comment in the last month, so doing video has not been a priority, she said.
During the pandemic, some of California’s most important laws ensuring transparency and freedom of speech have been somewhat compromised. Governor Gavin Newsom signed an executive order on March 12 that suspended meeting requirements of the Brown Act and Bagley-Keene Act. In some ways, Governor Newsom’s suspension of these acts has dissolved the transparency safety net these laws were enacted for, and come at the expense of the public.
“We’re seeing a lot of contraction of democratic values,” said Fred Smoller, Chapman political science professor and local government expert. “These are very unusual times.”
If anything, the crisis should be teaching us about the importance of digital savviness and internet access, since COVID-19’s rapid spread took governments at every level by surprise, he added.
Newsom waived the attendance requirements in both acts, which usually require the physical presence of councilmembers in the chambers. Members of the public should still be able to make public comment and communicate with city officials via phone or email, like they would in a regular public meeting.
Yet based on initial observations over the past two months, this change has had a direct effect on public comments. Most cities are taking comments via phone, email or digital messenger and reading them in meetings like they normally would.
Though some cities spend more time addressing public comments than others.
Huntington Beach spent about three and a half hours reading every public comment at their April 20 council meeting.
The City of Rancho Santa Margarita puts a time limit on their public comments, stating in agendas that they would only take 15 minutes for two rounds of public comment. In their latest meetings officials have stuck with this 30 minute limit.
The City of Buena Park created a new email address specifically for this purpose and had not received any negative feedback as of mid-April on the COVID-19 changes from the public, according to City Clerk Adria M. Jimenez.
It took some cities much longer than others to start meeting remotely.
Other methods of virtual meetings were also being embraced. At one point toward the end of April, half of OC cities were streaming video from the council chambers, where just a few city officials met (sitting several feet apart). The rest of the council tuned in on speaker phone. This can make it harder to hear the meeting, a problem we noticed with streams from Santa Ana, Laguna Niguel and Placentia in some meetings.
Placentia and Laguna Niguel were streaming remote teleconferences, but have since been meeting in-person in the chambers and video procedures have resumed normally. Santa Ana officials appear to still be meeting remotely.
It seems the safest way for city officials to meet during the pandemic has been to do it remotely, and video chat programs like Zoom and WebEx allow them to do so. These programs are accessible to anyone with a laptop or smartphone and are cheap.
The number of Zoom users has exploded this year, going from 10 million users in December to 200 million users by April, according to a Zoom blog post.
Like anything online, Zoom also comes with its share of security issues, namely “Zoom Bombing.”
Zoom Bombing is a Zoom hack where unwanted users gain access to a videoconference, sometimes flooding it with obscene content. On March 31, Laguna Beach’s Zoom meeting was hacked and a live sex scene interrupted the video. Additional security precautions have been taken by Zoom since the trend began.
Some cities have changed their meeting schedules altogether. The city officials of La Palma have chosen to reduce the amount of city council meetings from two to one a month.
Prior to the outbreak, La Palma was one of few cities who did not broadcast video of city council meetings. Rather, an audio broadcast is uploaded on the city website after each meeting. City Clerk Kimberly Kenney said this is partly because the city hall building was built in the 1970s, and partly because the demand for a video broadcast hasn’t been present in the small city.
“For us to do a video, it would need a substantial amount of money, and the city council does not have that kind of funding,” Kenney said. “Our building is really old, and the wiring that is on top of the council chambers is not conducive for each type of technology.”
Most Orange County cities contract with software companies to handle their normal video streaming and distribution. Since the start of the lockdown, the filming has had to change now that councils are meeting remotely, but the distribution has not.
In the second half of this series, we address how much cities are spending on services, which for most is tens of thousands of each year.
The pandemic, however, could be proving that there are other methods of video streaming which could get the job done for much cheaper.
In the second part of the series, we will explore the cost of city council video and audio streaming, which will be published tomorrow.
Correction: A previous version of this story said that the City of Fountain Valley did not offer videos of city council meetings. Fountain Valley does post videos and this has since been corrected.