The leader of Wrexham Council has called for more meetings in the Guildhall to be video streamed online – stating that some unnamed councillors say one thing in private and another in public.
The current council webcasting contract expires in January 2020 so a new procurement process is starting, with councillors looking to point officers in the direction they want.
Cllr Derek Wright questions the viewing figures, noting that three ‘main’ meetings (Planning, Executive Board, and Full Council) had ‘really good figures’ however said he had worked out an average viewership of just 36 people for each of the other meetings.
“I would question webcasting all meetings, for eleven meetings and just thirty six viewers on average, is it worth the time and effort it costs especially in the austerity measures we are under?”
In an attempt to ‘interpret the viewing figures’ Cllr King noted that long webcast committees had higher figures than newly covered ones, looking at other avenues of ‘making the best of it’ in terms of the video: “If Mr Spielberg is around perhaps we could hire him to make it more attractive?
“Perhaps we need to put some thought into making it as interesting and attractive as possible if viewing it from outside. Being an entertainer is not prime function, but actually communication is about how you make it as interesting as possible.
Sadly Cllr King did not explain if he saw current webcasts as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Twilight Zone or even Jurassic Park.
Cllr Harper said: “Keeping the existing webcasting provision is essential. I am disappointed there has been limited interest in sharing costs from other local authorities” and expressed a view to keep pushing neighbours into those discussions.
Cllr Harper also asked about the issue of old footage and use of Youtube. Previously the committee had requested archiving to take place on Youtube as Public-i had said they were looking at getting out of the archive business for cost and GDPR reasons.
The council officer told the meeting that Public-i had changed position so there would be no imminent deletions taking place, and a process had been arranged to move council footage to public Youtube. This is likely to start before June this year, with a slight delay due to staff / resourcing issues at the council.
Future meeting webcasts could exploit new service offerings from Public-i that include smoother more useful powerpoint integration and leveraging social media more in an automated manner. This could take the form of agenda items being auto-tweeted out with a direct auto-generated link to the relevant bit on the webcast to hopefully make the feeds more accessible.
Cllr Mike Davies reiterated his points made a previous meeting, noting he saw webcast archives as ‘historical documents’ as well as explaining how he felt webcast archives were better meeting minutes than the brief notes currently produced.
Cllr Baldwin enquired if there had been any technical advances since the last meeting, with the officer replying to the meeting with detail on a new ‘mobile’ version of the Public-i system.
The potential new system has a single locked off camera view, but picks up the audio from several microphones so councillor input is recorded and visible. This was described as a ‘cheaper’ system, and councillors supported looking to get more detail on it.
Cllr Mark Pritchard, the Leader of Wrexham Council, sat in on the Committee and was allowed to speak: “I have been consistent on this from day one. Challenge me to open this council out to as much openness and transparency as we can.
“I would not agree with Derek, it is not a numbers game on who or how many view, it is about accountability. Democracy in its true form costs money, and we have rolled out webcasting, and want to do it in other areas, and it is a journey we are going on.
“When you have social media today and pseudonyms, Facebook Snapchat Instagram whatever, a lot of people hide in the dark. Smoke and mirrors.
“We have nowhere to hide with webcasting, you are there, we should all be made accountable. If anyone questions you it is a true record of what was said, you can say and show ‘this is what I voted for’. It can help you.”
“I would love to see cameras in Task and Finish, I would say something like the Local Development Plan 2 which went through the Planning Policy Panel should have been webcast.
“We have a lot of elected members saying ‘I did not say that’ or ‘I did not do that’, well yes, you did and you did support it. But when it came into public, they said ‘not on my watch’, well yes you did. You were part of it.”
“I am driven by opening this council up to true democracy. I have got fed up with elected members saying ‘you said’, ‘he said’, ‘we did’, it was a nonsense. Don’t be scared, roll it out, let everyone see.”
Cllr Pritchard also encouraged Scrutiny meetings to be held out in the community in various village halls or similar rather than just in the Guildhall.
Cllr King welcomed the speech saying it was ‘important to see your colours nailed to the mast’ with a ‘clear commitment’.
Cllr Apsley encouraged prompt work on the plans, noting there was only a few months left to get the service renewed and any procurement sorted out.
After some more debate the committee appeared to be moving to a vote, which was effectively interrupted by Cllr Pritchard.
Cllr Pritchard told the committee he would not support anything less than 100% webcasting coverage of Scrutiny meetings and warned of a ‘missed opportunity’ if that did not happen.
Referring back to previous meetings, Cllr King assured Cllr Pritchard that ‘all’ would be webcasted.
Future work will likely look at how Task and Finish groups will be broadcast along with a range of other effectively private meetings, with Cllr Pritchard saying there was ‘no reason’ why Task and Finish could not be open to public viewing in person now let alone webcasting, noting any private business could be taken into the usual ‘Part 2’ style secret sections of meetings.
One warning note was issued by the council officer who pointed out that with more webcasting means more resources needed to staff it, as well as the external costs involved.
As Lead Member for Finance, and Leader of the Council, Cllr Pritchard assured the meeting that would not be a problem: “If you have a genuine commitment to this you will resource and fund it properly.
“It is us who set the policy and the finance, and if you are committed to openness and transparency you will find the funding. You can’t hide any longer, you have to open it up.”
Good old days are back in a council meeting , Clr King v Clr Pritchard in a overly polite exchange, “I understand you have some influence with the Executive Board’ … ‘I hope so!’
— Wrexham.com (@wrexham) March 14, 2019
Cllr King called that a ‘clear green light’ to roll out further webcasting, and thus would be looked at ‘as soon as possible’.
Cllr Wright clarified his earlier comments, “I agree if we do it, we do it all, there is a cost to democracy and that is fair enough.”
The committee agreed to recommend to procure a similar current system, and explore options for a ‘mobile’ camera method, and also to effectively keep pestering neighbouring authorities to see if a shared procurement would be possible in the future to hopefully save money.
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