Councillors are recommending to expand webcasting of meetings, with a desire to see all business recorded and broadcast if possible, however with just the Guildhall chamber set up with cameras a battle could be on to reclaim that space.
Council Leader Mark Pritchard issued a bold challenge yesterday asking fellow councillors to be ‘brave’ and to ‘bite the bullet’ in pushing for full coverage, also taking no prisoners with council staff who also use the council chamber, being happy to decant them off to the Memorial Hall.
The current webcasting contract allows for up to 80 hours of broadcasting per year, which is largely made up of full council, executive board and planning meetings.
It also provides for the lease of all hardware and software to webcast live in the main council chamber and on-demand meeting replays for up to 6 months via the archives – along with hardware and software upgrades and maintenance.
Speaking at yesterday’s meeting, Head of Democratic Services, Sioned Wyn Davies explained that under the current contract there had been also been capacity to webcast 10 hours of scrutiny meetings and that any changes would need consideration as to where the funding would come from.
Referencing a meeting he attended last year, Cllr Derek Wright kicked off the debate by asking if there was scope to do more under the current contract, noting that Pembrokeshire Council do more but with the same budget, and another authority covers all meetings.
He said: “I wouldn’t like to see pressure on the budget, but can we can maximise what we use now and get more out of the present system?”
Cllr Bryan Apsley pointed out that the option to extend the current service to provide 110 hours for scrutiny committees was an extra £4,800 and that while it is a “wish list rather than a must”, the council should strive to find that money from somewhere.
Cllr Alan Edwards said he couldn’t push forward without knowing the cost and asked for further information about funding to be presented to the committee at a future meeting.
However Leader of Wrexham Council Mark Pritchard said the “report needs to go further” and urged the committee to be bold and “challenge the Executive Board” to roll webcasting out across all meetings.
He said: “There is a cost for openness and transparency and we should strive for every meeting on webcam. I think elected members need to bite the bullet, find the money and open it out.
“Is scrutiny less important? I don’t believe it is. The decisions made by all elected members should be there for people to see how they voted.”
Cllr Pritchard added: “I would be saddened if scrutiny didn’t look to challenge the Executive Board to roll it out across the council.
“Sometimes we as elected members need to brave and bold. There will be criticism and we will be criticised where we spend money. On this occasion I think we should spend it.
“The council should be open, transparent and every meeting should be on webcam.”
In a rare agreement between the pair, chairman of the committee Cllr Malcolm King noted that he “couldn’t agree more” with Cllr Pritchard, adding: “The Leader has made a bold statement asking us to issue a challenge to the executive board and I understand he has some influence with it.”
One potential issue raised about rolling out webcasting to all meetings was the availability of the council chamber, which is booked for meetings away from the usual executive board, full council and planning committees.
The chamber is the only facility in the Guildhall with the webcasting equipment installed, however the use of the room is not restricted to just councillors – with council staff and others using the room for meetings. Just after the Scrutiny meeting we spotted the below tweet of the room in use at the same time:
Pete and Steve delivering presentation at the Guildhall Wrexham, thanks to all who attended, hope you enjoyed it. pic.twitter.com/Ax5ucgb1u1
— Pedal Power (@PedalPowerWxm) March 8, 2018
Cllr Wright said: “I agree with what Cllr Pritchard said, but the one stumbling block is the council chamber. There is lots in there that can’t be moved.
“We need to challenge the executive board and officers on how we can be more flexible with meetings and the council chamber.
“We can’t just say let’s webcast everything, let’s do it by freeing up the chamber and being more flexible with times and dates.”
Cllr Wright also suggested that use of the main chamber for scrutiny is factored in when the meeting schedule for the next 12 months is agreed in May.
The Head of Democratic Services noted that the logistics of more meetings in the chamber can be explored and suggested that details of further costs and what can be accommodated are brought back to the committee before a final recommendation is made.
Referencing his earlier comments about challenging the executive board and rolling out the webcasts, Cllr Pritchard said there was “nothing we can’t achieve”, saying he wanted to see the chamber managed with councillors given priority.
He continued: “We have have other spacious rooms here and in Memorial Hall. I have had a discussion with many officers and I just think time we moved on, got on with it and opened this council to true democracy.”
Cllr Dixon queried if the archives of the webcasts could be made longer rather than expiring after 6 months and was told various options will be looked at. Cllr King pointed out that when webcasting was brought it shorter meeting minutes were created, with the webcasting being the reference instead, and therefore longer archives should be required.
Cllr Baldwin enquired if copies of the webcasts can be made, perhaps in reference to the recent ticking off when a meeting clip was circulated on facebook, and got a firm reply. The Officer told the meeting, “The Council owns the copyright and manages it carefully. We would not permit extracts to be copied to any other facility”. The reasoning was based around ‘control’ to ensure there was no unscrupulous editing
Two resolutions were put forward by Cllr Wright, who proposed that the committee challenges the executive board to implement webcasting for all council and committee meetings where appropriate should be in the chamber.
It was also proposed that option four – allowing for an extension to the number of hours available for scrutiny meetings is adopted, with a report coming back to the committee at the next meeting.
These were passed unanimously by the committee members, who appeared keen to see as much webcasting as possible.
The issue is likely to come back around June with further detail and a final formal recommendation to be formed up.
Top pic: The Guildhall Chamber.