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Smithfield may consider live-streaming meetings

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic this spring, Smithfield Town Council has shifted to conducting socially-distanced in person meetings — but hasn’t broadcast them online or on social media platforms.

Mayor Carter Williams and one town council member said they feel that approach is working OK, while another council member said live streaming meetings is “something we should probably take a look at.”

When the pandemic surged in the spring, prompting shutdowns of nearly all public activities and events, many local government councils, boards and commissions began live streaming public meetings on Facebook, YouTube, Zoom or another digital broadcast platform for the first time or they enhanced what they were already doing in that regard by promoting the option to tune in virtually in real time.

Williams confirmed that the town has not conducted any virtual broadcasts of regular council meetings. If the health situation stays the same or declines, the mayor said the town might consider live streaming meetings, “but so far we haven’t looked at doing that,” Williams said, adding that the current setup “is working fairly well right now.”

Anyone who doesn’t feel comfortable attending town council meetings in person may submit comments and issues for the council’s consideration in writing or by email to the town clerk at lking@smithfieldva.gov. The town, in turn, will respond in writing after the meeting.

“Everybody wears a mask there and any staff that’s there, they keep the masks on. Everybody is safely distanced apart like you should be,” Williams said. “We have nowhere near 25 people there, so it’s doing good. It’s working very well the way we’re doing it right now. Everybody is safe keeping their distance, and wearing a mask and everything’s fine, so I don’t see why we’d need to do that anytime soon.”

Following a surge in COVID-19 cases, Gov. Ralph Northam implemented stricter statewide measures effective Nov. 15 to slow the spread of the virus. They include limiting all public and private in-person gatherings to 25 people. In addition, all Virginians over age 5 must wear a mask in indoor public spaces.

Councilwoman Renee Rountree echoed Williams’ perspective. “I think the way we are conducting meetings now is working,” she said in an email. “I have not received any citizen comments on this topic for or against live streaming.”

However, Councilwoman Valerie Butler said it’s a bit surprising to her that no one has expressed an interest in seeing the town’s official business broadcast online.

“It definitely would keep the citizens engaged,” Butler said about establishing a meeting live stream. “I think going forward, we’ll have some discussion centered around that, to see if other council members have had any conversations, but I think in this day and time with technology, I think it’s a viable option to be able to offer those that want to view it from the confines of their home,” she said.

Butler also said adding a live stream of the meeting may also help people — young people in particular — engage with their local government, as many people conduct quite a bit of their daily life through smartphones, apps and social media. “We want [government] to be inclusive for all the citizens and make it as convenient for them as possible,” she said.

But by continuing to meet in person, Butler noted that people who feel strongly about an issue who are willing and able to follow social distancing protocols can still participate and attend meetings. In addition to socially distancing those in attendance, council members “also socially distance ourselves” as each member of council and town staff are spaced apart at meetings, which are usually conducted in a large room at the Smithfield Center.

Although what the town is doing is perfectly OK, the absence of a public meeting live stream is a missed opportunity, said Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government. The nonprofit alliance promotes expanded access to local and state government records and meetings.

“Generally speaking, we have not changed our position for the past 15 or so years, which is that government should always be encouraged to use technology to increase public visibility, participation and observation,” Rhyne said. “There is nothing in state law that would prohibit doing that and so it’s just something we’ve thought was a good idea for government bodies to be doing all along.”

Rhyne said law requires public bodies in Virginia to take written meeting minutes as the official record of deliberations and decisions. The minutes must be kept indefinitely. Government councils, commissions and boards may record video of their sessions, but they are not required to maintain the recordings in the same way as minutes.

Although there’s nothing in the law that prohibits a government body from creating and archiving video recordings of meeting proceedings, some jurisdictions do it anyway. However, Rhyne said the suggestion that video replace written minutes as the official recordkeeping medium has been rejected over concerns that forcing people to sift through hours of video footage to find a simple piece of information would be too onerous.

There’s also concerns about how entities would maintain thousands of hours of video in a format that will be readily accessible in 20 years. In short, written copies of information, even if they’re produced and stored digitally, are generally considered more stable and easier and less expensive to maintain and access.

In addition to budget concerns, Rhyne said a barrier to expanding virtual meetings might be the mindset in many levels of government that every task and initiative has to be done with a very high degree of precision and professional execution right from the start.

That’s a valid issue, but “in order to reach the public, all you need is a tripod, an iPhone and somebody with a Facebook account. You can do it for very cheaply,” Rhyne said. “I don’t mean to minimize it — budget is definitely a constraint,” she continued. But Rhyne added, “where there’s a will, there’s a way.”