It was billed as a state of the art upgrade for “public participation and openness.”
Yet it was designed without asking for any public input.
Orange County supervisors dedicated $400 million in tax money and four years to building a new six-story headquarters for themselves and other county officials.
Then, during construction, the COVID pandemic hit and public viewing patterns for public meetings opened to being able to monitor remotely.
Yet instead of remote access getting better in Orange County’s new grand county supervisors’ hearing room, it seems the audio/visual got worse.
The live video stream of the inaugural Sept. 13 meeting cut out every few seconds – an issue that wasn’t cropping up in the supervisors’ prior longtime meeting room, built in the 1970s.
The county’s spokeswoman attributed the video problems to a nationwide outage at the county’s contractor, Granicus.
There’s supposed to be another way to listen in remotely to the county supervisors meetings – a phone line that plays the meeting’s audio live to people who call in.
But that was down altogether during the meeting, due to equipment problems in the new building, known as County Administration North.
County staff attributed the audio problem to “equipment delays” caused by pandemic-related “global shortages related to procuring electronic equipment.”
“As such, the equipment delays did not allow for sufficient time to get all the functionalities set up for the first meeting,” said county spokeswoman Molly Nichelson in a text message to Voice of OC.
The problems left no reliable way to remotely follow along live as Orange County’s top elected officials made decisions at their public meeting.
“It’s very frustrating,” wrote one Voice of OC reader – as they were trying to watch the meeting – in a text message to a reporter.
Orange County CEO Frank Kim acknowledged the problems.
“I appreciate the board’s patience as we work through all of the bugs in our new board hearing room,” Kim said at the Sept. 13 board meeting.
The equipment was supposed to be part of the new building, said Nichelson.
“Three weeks before the delivery date the equipment vendor informed the construction contractor of the delay and provided an estimated ETA of February 2023,” Nichelson wrote in a text message responding to Voice of OC’s questions.
“The County was forced to implement a temporary solution until the new equipment arrives.”
The building’s lead contractor, Griffin Structures, didn’t return a phone message for comment.
Nichelson also took responsibility for posting the call-in number on social media without checking whether it was working.
“I regret my error,” Nichelson said.
The phone line will be up and running by the supervisors next meeting on Tuesday, she added.
At the Sept. 13 meeting, the video stream was rife with glitches, cutting out and pausing, regardless of what type of device or internet connection viewers were using.
The video issues weren’t the county’s fault, Nichelson said, but were rather due to a nationwide outage with the contractor.
She later pointed to a website stating Granicus was dealing that day with “intermittent freezing and buffering during livestreams for some clients.”
As for the phone line alternative, when a Voice of OC reporter called it two hours into the meeting as it was ongoing, the line said the meeting host hadn’t arrived and to stand by.
It then proceeded to play hold music.
OC Supervisor Katrina Foley said she first learned the meeting phone line was down a week later, from a Voice of OC reporter who reached out for comment.
“This is the first that I’m hearing that. I did not know that,” Foley said, adding that she was told the day of the meeting about the separate video stream problems.
“i would expect that it will get fixed by the next meeting,” she added.
The other four county supervisors didn’t return phone calls and messages for comment.
The new building increases the county supervisors’ office space by at least 60 percent, to 32,000 square feet.
The recent problems are not the only public communications problem at new county facilities.
The newest building’s twin – County Administration South, which opened in 2019 at a cost of around $300 million – had problems with public communications early in the pandemic.
When the county held a coronavirus news conference there in 2020, officials had no built-in ability to livestream it onto the internet. And cell phone service wasn’t working properly within the room.
In the county’s later COVID news conferences, Voice of OC Publisher Norberto Santana noted reporters were “forced to listen in on a phone line that sounds jumbled, as if someone is holding up a phone up to the conference. Meanwhile, there’s often loud typing in the background mixed with the bad audio.”
And supervisors never put the designs for the new buildings on public meeting agendas.
“The design and features were reviewed and approved by the Ad Hoc Committee with staff input,” Nichelson said last week, referring to closed-door meetings of supervisors Andrew Do and Shawn Nelson.
The other two largest counties in California – LA and San Diego – continue use headquarters built in 1938 and 1960.
Both are older than the one Orange County has used for decades, known as the Hall of Administration or “HOA.” It was built in the mid-1970s.
That building is set to be demolished in the coming months.
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at email@example.com.
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