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Columbus meetings build audience

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Board members listen to an update on parking garage management and operation from Gary Thompson, center, Monday, Jan. 27, 2014, at the Columbus Redevelopment Commission meeting.
Board members listen to an update on parking garage management and operation from Gary Thompson, center, Monday, Jan. 27, 2014, at the Columbus Redevelopment Commission meeting.

A city initiative to stream its meetings live on its website in its first year has attracted thousands of visitors who connect to municipal government through a computer or smartphone.

For busy Cummins executive Russell Poling Sr., it’s a way to keep track of Columbus City Council meetings, even when he’s traveling on business. He works as a global divisional field service engineering manager.

When he’s in town, Poling attends council meetings at City Hall.

But when traveling, he turns to the city website to access council meeting archives. In addition to live streaming of the meetings on the city website, viewers can access previous meetings labeled by date.

Poling watched some archived council meetings while on business in China late last year and says he will be traveling to Australia when the next city council meeting rolls around.

“When I get to the hotel, I’ll pull it up on the Internet,” he said. “I’m just really interested in what’s going on in this city,” he said.

Columbus resident Bill Pumphrey also accesses meetings on city’s website, most often those of the Columbus Parks and Recreation Board and city council.

Calling himself an occasional viewer, Pumphrey said he uses the meeting video to get a “feel of the process of government — to get more insight into city government.”

But it’s also apparent that this electronic idea to add more transparency to the operations of local government is building an audience.

Denise Hatten, who manages The Mulligan Grille Restaurant at the Elks, said she had heard that the city planned to start web-streaming the meetings but hasn’t watched yet.

It comes down to Hatten finding the time to become more engaged in the operations of city government, because she said running a restaurant is an all-consuming endeavor.

“I can see it would be interesting, given the current administration’s fireworks,” she said. “But we’re kind of the older generation. We look at the Internet, but we still get the newspaper.”

Tracking viewership

The city’s tracking software indicates those who are tuning in on the Web are most likely to choose a Columbus City Council, Redevelopment Commission or Board of Works meeting when checking out a live broadcast or catching up with them later in the archive.

Meetings with the fewest views are those that moved into the viewing rotation later in 2013, including Animal Care Services Commission and the Technical Advisory Committee.

But Mayor Kristen Brown and city Communications and Program Coordinator Chris Schilling predict these panels will find their audience, too, with overall viewership increasing as each municipal board joined the lineup.

All decision-making bodies of city government were asked to move their meetings to the City Hall Council Chambers where audio and video equipment was installed at the end of 2012. The Columbus City Council went live first on Jan. 7, 2013, followed by the Board of Works the next day.

“I think it’s a great thing,” said City Councilman Frank Jerome, who is on camera for city council and redevelopment commission meetings and occasionally checks out the archives.

“Sometimes the quality isn’t good enough to see who is talking, but I go back to see what was said,” Jerome said.

The Commons Board moved from its downtown building to City Hall last May but put its individual stamp on the move by reconfiguring the seating in the council chambers. Most boards sit behind the council desk and have individual name placards.

“We sit in a big circle, which feels less formal and helps us hear one another better,” said Sherry Stark, board president.

The Columbus Parks and Recreation Board moved meetings from Donner Center to City Hall on April 11.

Board member Nancy Ann Brown said she and others liked having the meetings at Donner, where the city’s parks operation is based, but agreed to move because the mayor requested it.

She agreed with the idea of allowing the public to be more plugged in about how government works.

“But I don’t think most people know it’s there,” Nancy Ann Brown said of website links to watch the meetings.

“I’ve told a lot of people, if you want to watch something interesting, go on the city website and click on the parks board,” she said, adding no one she knows of has taken her up on the suggestion.

“I understand the mayor wanting to make everything more available to the public,” she said. “And this is one way to do it.”

Measuring viewing audience

Schilling’s calculations show the city’s website total page views from the beginning of live streaming to Feb. 25 were 72,238. These page view calculations include viewing live streams, archived video, meeting agendas and the main video streaming page.

Unique visitors who accessed video content were calculated at 7,076 individuals. A majority, 88 percent, viewed on a personal computer, with the remaining 12 percent accessing by mobile device.

For the month, the city had 2,049 page views in January 2013 when video streaming began, and had 9,049 in page views this January, more than quadrupling the audience.

Brown attributes the increases to the additional boards joining the lineup and word-of-mouth knowledge that the meetings are archived and accessible for those who want to watch on their own schedule.

After the meetings are streamed on the website, they are archived by date and accessible anytime. By using the website’s dropbox feature, anyone watching can download agendas and meeting materials that are referenced in the meetings, the same materials board members are considering during the meeting.

Being able to watch live or archived meetings “would be awesome,” said Sande Hummel, a U.S. Postal Service employee who also manages the Columbus City Farmers Market.

She doesn’t get off work until 6 p.m., however, which is when many of the evening meetings start. With many families’ scheduled filled with after-school activities, she said recordings might be the only practical way for them to watch.

Pledge of transparency

The decision at the end of 2012 to invest in $58,308 worth of audio and video equipment in the council chambers, to enhance the internal sound system and add two 70-inch monitors, was part of a campaign promise by Mayor Brown.

The city paid for the installation with funds from the Technology Advisory Committee, utilizing cable television franchise fees. No property tax revenues were used. The city pays a $209 monthly fee to offer the services.

The investment significantly increases public accessibility to meetings, improves transparency and accountability of city government and helps citizens stay informed about decisions that affect them, she said.

City residents need to see firsthand how their money is being spent and they need to observe the policy decisions that impact their lives, the mayor said.

Allowing city boards to meet where they wanted to convene was for their convenience, not for the public’s, she said. Now, people can tune in when they wish — and some, like Poling, are even doing so from outside Indiana and even outside the United States.

“City government has become very transparent, accountable and accessible,” Brown said. “It helps build the public’s trust.”

All but one of the city’s government decision-making bodies are now on live streaming, meeting in the council chambers on a schedule that is also accessible on the city website’s calendar.

Aviation Commission a holdout

The city’s Board of Aviation Commission voted Feb. 11 to keep meeting at the Columbus Municipal Airport, despite the request from Mayor Brown that the commission use the City Hall facilities.

The commission’s work is specific to the airport location rather than a function of city government, commission member Dick Gaynor said.

“If we went downtown, we wouldn’t have our constituency there,” he said, referring to airport tenants such as pilots, aircraft museum supporters and representatives of the colleges located on the airport campus.

“My feeling is, we are serving the people of Columbus, not just the airport and the airport users,” Brown said. “I understand they want to stay at the airport; that’s where they have always met. But this building (City Hall) is where the city’s business is conducted and it’s the people’s business.”

Aviation commission president Caleb Tennis said he favors moving the meeting to the council chambers for the live streaming, but he missed the Feb. 11 meeting when the vote was taken.

Tennis is open to the possibility of finding a way to live-stream from the airport where the meetings are held.

As president of the DataCave technology company in Columbus, he might have some ideas of how to do it.

“I actually make use of it,” Tennis said of the video streaming. “It’s good to have it as a public record of what happened.”

The city’s streaming project also has spread to one county governmental body.

The Bartholomew County Plan Commission began live streaming June 12. It had always used the council chambers as a meeting site and requested to be included among the city’s recordings.

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