In the era of online government, video streaming public meetings is more important than ever.
But it comes at a price.
The lockdown could be proving that cities don’t have to spend a lot to stream and post videos of public meetings. This is possible through services like YouTube and Facebook Live, which few OC cities take advantage of. Technology is often seen as a great equalizer, and the pandemic is proving that some of the most virtually savvy cities don’t have to spend a lot to be accessible online.
Editors’ Note: This story is second in a two-part series. The first story examines how Orange County cities are handling business remotely during the pandemic. 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.
For example, many cities, like Newport Beach, spend tens of thousands on streaming video.
Meanwhile, the City of Dana Point recently shifted to YouTube videos of council meetings, which costs taxpayers nothing.
Voice of OC submitted public records requests to every city in Orange County to find out how much they spend on their online services, revealing some incongruencies in spending.
At the high end of the spectrum, cities can spend tens of thousands of dollars on video and agenda services annually, while others handle these tasks themselves and spend next to nothing. While higher spending tends to correlate with better video, cash alone does not make the stream. Quality and accessibility largely depend on how local government bodies are using their resources, and whether or not they make digital accessibility a priority.
Student reporters working with the Voice of OC spent months examining the dynamic.
In the first story of this series, reporters examined how OC cities are handling business remotely during the pandemic, with some city councils broadcasting their meetings through Zoom and others still meeting in the city chambers.
Reporters looked specifically at what cities spend on Granicus, PrimeGov and Swagit, companies which all provide video streaming services to government organizations. To keep the focus narrow, the survey did not consider what cities spend on website upkeep.
More than half of the cities in the county use Granicus, which offers services including records management and video streaming software for government websites. Granicus services 4,500 government organizations between the U.S., U.K. and Canada, including 48 of America’s 50 largest cities.
Newport Beach spends more on Granicus than any city in Orange County, dedicating about $120,000 to its services annually. This is partly because Granicus has recently bought out other software companies which the city was already using, according to Finance Specialist Katie Wills.
Newport Beach videos are professional, clear and easy to access. City officials did not start remote City Council video conferencing until April 14.
Fullerton is also among the county’s largest spenders, attributing $90,350 in annual costs to video and agenda services, including Granicus, according to public records. Fullerton stood out for implementing remote video conferencing at their April 1 meeting, one of the first cities to do so.
Huntington Beach, Santa Ana and Laguna Beach spend $46,330, $38,440 and $34,400 respectively, according to public records. Out of this group, Huntington Beach stood out for keeping high quality video and audio as some city officials joined the meeting through video chat at their April 20 meeting.
Some of the smaller cities spend virtually nothing on video and agenda services, either choosing to do it themselves or not offering video or audio recordings at all.
Villa Park and San Clemente both post city council meetings on YouTube, and do not spend anything on video services, according to public records.
Villa Park managed to be one of the first cities to hop on the Zoom train, despite not spending anything on video or agenda services, according to public records. The Villa Park City Council held a March 17 emergency session via Zoom and have continued to experiment with remote video chat. That said, the Villa Park audio of remote meetings is fuzzy compared to some of the other streams.
Another challenge cities faced during this time was taking public comment, as people could no longer attend meetings in person. To combat this, Granicus started offering a service called eComment for free, which allows for cities to take public comment during their video streams. The service has been around for years but is now in higher demand, according to Drew Baker, an enterprise account executive for Granicus.
“Some cities are scrambling to make this all work,” Baker said. “We thought of this as a service to public service.”
But eComment is just one of many modules that Granicus offers, the prices of which vary greatly. This is part of why some OC cities spend way more on web services than others, because they are paying for more modules.
Additionally, some cities have Granicus-related expenses increase by seven percent each year, according to public records.
Though Granicus has a stronghold, the niche market of software companies taylored to government websites is growing, giving city officials more options when it comes to what services they want and how much they want to spend.
Three OC cities, Brea, Buena Park and Cypress, use Swagit which is different from Granicus in that the company handles video distribution for its customers. With other companies, it’s up to city officials to determine how they want to use the software, but with Swagit all the aspects of video operations and streaming can be handled remotely, according to Swagit’s Vice President David Alex Owusu.
“On Swagit’s side, we’re giving equipment and software where the client has the capability to do that work locally if they wanted, or they can push all of the work to Swagit. We can control cameras remotely from here in Dallas or the customer can control them locally in California if they’d like,” Owusu said.
“You could kind of say we’ve been social distancing since 2004. Once we get a feed, for us it’s business as usual.”
-Swagit’s Vice President David Alex Owusu
In the fiscal year 2018-19, Brea spent $17,200 on Swagit, according to City Clerk Specialist Ashley Reid.
The City of Buena Park has posted videos through Swagit since 2015 after switching from Granicus. They spend $995 a month for Swagit.
“Swagit is user-friendly, cost-efficient, and their customer service is highly responsive,” according to Buena Park City Clerk Adria M. Jimenez.
Two cities use PrimeGov, which ironically, was started by a founder of Granicus. Executive Chairman of PrimeGov Tom Spengler told the Voice of OC he started Granicus when he was right out of college, but sold the company 15 years later. Spengler later helped found PrimeGov, using his experience and connections from Granicus to start over, promising more individualized customer support to attract cities unhappy with his competitors.
To meet the demands of COVID-19, PrimeGov partnered with Zoom. The only two OC cities using PrimeGov are Seal Beach and Lake Forest.
The April 27 Seal Beach City Council meeting was conducted via remote teleconference, with muffled audio, presumably because the meeting was recording people talking on the phone. Seal Beach spent about $8,400 on PrimeGov in the last fiscal year, according to public records.
Lake Forest spent $11,595 on PrimeGov in the last year, according to public records. The council has continued to meet in the chambers to stream video during the pandemic, though they are sitting apart and wearing masks.
Voice of OC research discovered that some cities that spend a lot and others that spend none are able to accomplish similar things.
Some cities do council meeting broadcasting for free.
Dana Point, uses YouTube as free broadcasting and assigns video operations as another part of the city staffs’ job.
Dana Point was previously contracted with Granicus but in the last few years decided funding was better used elsewhere.
Dana Point City Council Member Debra Lewis likes YouTube better than Granicus. YouTube appears to have better sound quality and it is easily accessible to viewers, she wrote in an email to the Voice of OC.
“The one thing I liked about [Granicus] was the agenda was linked to it so a viewer could click on an agenda item and go right to the portion of the meeting for that item,” Lewis added.
Spengler of PrimeGov noted that what we are realizing now about using technology to its full potential should stay relevant even after social distancing eases up.
“These kinds of virtual citizen engagement tools should be here to stay. Why not allow people to virtually participate in the meeting even when the council is getting back together,” Spengler said.
It should be noted that six cities did not respond to our initial public records requests, which were sent out in mid-April. Follow-ups to these requests were issued and most cities responded, though Fountain Valley failed to fulfill our request altogether.
Some cities responded to records requests with an automated COVID-19 message stating that the capacity to respond promptly to requests is limited at this time. The City of Buena Park initially estimated taking at least 30 days to identify responsive records, according to a document sent to the Voice of OC from the Office of the City Clerk.
The California Public Records Act requires government agencies to reply to requests within 10 business days – and 14 if the request requires lots of documents.
The League of California Cities, which represents close to 500 cities, asked Governor Newsom to “suspend open record laws” and “be granted the flexibility to respond given reduced staffing and closed city offices,” the First Amendment Coalition noted on April 1. These requests have not been granted and there is no provision in the Public Records Act allowing response deadlines to be waived, according to Terry Francke, a representative of California Aware.
“In effect agencies who adopt this staffing shortage posture are betting that no records requester will challenge in court,” Francke stated.
PrimeGov’s Tom Spengler said that there is a balance between what is good for a community and what is good for city employees who are tasked with responding to the public.
“If you make the staff’s job harder, it essentially becomes more expensive for them to do their job,” Spengler said.
However, there are alot of opportunities to improve accessibility, he added, lessons which should stick with us beyond the coronavirus pandemic.