BARRE — Officials in Plainfield have suspended recording public select board meetings. Meanwhile, Barre Town briefly considered live-streaming its select board meetings, but has ultimately decided against it.
Both situations highlight the service public access provides to each community, whose residents often cannot readily attend meetings. Public access stations nationwide are struggling to maintain viewership as the number of cable subscribers has dwindled toward more streaming options. In response, and to remain viable, public access stations have been live-streaming certain meetings, and providing video on demand of most other public meetings. They also archive public meetings for a period of time.
At its regular meeting last week, the Plainfield Select Board discussed recording of its meetings by public access channel Central Vermont Television in Barre. Board chairwoman Sasha Thayer said officials had discussed the recordings when working on the upcoming budget. Thayer said the town can’t afford to pay for recordings based on the few people who tune in. However, attendance by townspeople to these public meetings, often is in the single digits, unless there is a hot-button issue, according to videographers who attend many public meetings across several towns and Barre City. And advocates for public access say it’s a worthy investment for transparency and open government.
Thayer said she appreciates CVTV’s work and wished the town had more money to spend on it.
Thayer said officials have been discussing possibly audio recording meetings and then posting them on the town website for residents.
Board members said if there were pushback from residents, they would reconsider.
Tony Campos is executive director of CVTV. Campos said the public access channel will not record the board’s meetings this February, but that the topic is likely to come up on Town Meeting Day on March 3.
“I’ve always believed in public access, (taping) these board meetings from gavel-to-gavel,” he said, adding that having the recording is a public service that stations like his provide under federal law. There are 25 public access stations across Vermont that record dozens of public meetings each week. Campos said journalists often can’t cover every meeting, so having them recorded and archived also gives the media and the public a chance to watch meetings at a later date. (The Times Argus reporters use these recordings from CVTV and ORCA Media in Montpelier on a regular basis, and the newspaper often posts the public meetings on its Facebook page.)
Campos said he didn’t have figures on-hand for how many viewers Plainfield board meetings averaged, but said anyone with internet access can share any meeting video on social media for free.
Lately, a conflict arose in Plainfield, as meetings started to drift beyond the allotted time limit. Some board meetings ran over two and a half hours, and CVTV began asking additional compensation to pay for the overtime to cover the cost of the camera operator assigned to record the meetings.
Campos said that led to Plainfield officials asking for data on just how many people were actually watching the public meetings. Campos said because public access stations don’t subscribe to Nielsen ratings, there is no way to know how many cable viewers were watching meetings on television. Campos said the town board had asked for IP addresses from those who had been watching videos to see whether the same person was watching a video multiple times, potentially inflating viewership. He said that is not something CVTV can provide; that information is protected by privacy laws.
Local residents have already made posts on Front Porch Forum expressing a desire to keep recordings going in the interest of transparency and keeping the community connected.
Former Plainfield Select Board member Bram Towbin has been a longtime advocate for public access. He is the former chair of CVTV’s board of directors. He still sits on that board. Campos said Towbin has been been trying for years to use public access to draw more people’s attention to Plainfield town government, going as far as watching Select Board meetings himself and inserting chapters of each agenda item to make viewing more accessible for townspeople.
“I vehemently disagree with this decision. My point of view is the importance of getting the word out on municipal issues is critical,” he said Thursday evening.
Towbin said he doesn’t think using the number of people viewing the recordings is the best way to judge the importance of archiving municipal meetings. He said when “hot-button” issues come up in town he will get calls from residents who learned about them by watching the videos.
He said the all communities face a “crisis of engagement,” because everyone is so busy and these recording are so helpful.
Towbin said he doesn’t believe the select board is trying to hide anything by not having a camera in the room, and said he understands the financial concern. “I just disagree that this is the area that’s best to cut,” he said.
Towbin said people in town have told him they are not happy about the decision and some have discussed raising funds to keep recording of meetings.
It’s unclear how much Plainfield actually has been paying CVTV for recordings. The last town report didn’t appear to have a line item for it in the town’s budget. Thayer did not return a request for comment Thursday.
Campos said CVTV charges the town a minimum of $75 for up to two and a half hours of recording, which includes paying for storing the videos online as well as the cost of the videographer.
In Barre Town, at its regular meeting this week, the select board talked about going in the other direction and live-streaming meetings instead of just recording them for later viewing.
Board member Bob Nelson was against the idea, saying he thought live streaming the meetings would cause fewer people to attend meetings because they could just watch them at home.
Board member Jack Mitchell was in favor of it. Mitchell said for years attempts have been made by CVTV to make it possible to live-stream meetings from the municipal building.
Barre City has been live-streaming its city council meetings for nearly 30 years. Assistant Town Manager Elaine Wang said the city had wanted to keep its meetings live if it were to have a joint meeting with the town in the town. Wang said CVTV recently attempted and was successful in making it possible to live stream the meetings.
Board member Norma Malone said this topic “simply isn’t a high priority for me.” Malone said at the end of the day it didn’t matter much if the meetings were live streamed or not. She said if someone is passionate about something they see on an agenda she’d rather they come to the meeting instead of watching it. She agreed with Nelson saying it could inhibit public participation.
Board member Paul White said he would vote against it if there was any price tag attached to live-streaming. But since it’s free he said he doesn’t “have a dog in the fight.”
The board voted 2-1 against live-streaming, with Nelson and Malone voting no and Mitchell voting yes. White abstained, while board chairman Tom White was not in attendance.
Campos said in the past, when people were watching the Barre City Council live, there were instances where they could see an issue being discussed, get in their vehicle and drive to the meeting.
“Depending on the topic, I don’t think (live-streaming) is going to detract people from participating in meetings,” he said.
Campos said the town has the ability to live-stream its meetings if it wants to so that option is on the table if the board changes its mind in the future.