by Robin Kemp

In a move that heralds a new era of greater citizen access to government, the Forest Park City Council, the Downtown Development Authority, the Development Authority, and the Urban Redevelopment Authority have voted to install a professional, state-of-the-art audiovisual system that should allow residents to watch and hear council proceedings clearly.

The move comes following months of negotiations with The Clayton Crescent’s legal representatives over the city’s repeated violations of Georgia’s Open Meetings Act during the city’s COVID-19 emergency.

The University of Georgia Law First Amendment Clinic, along with media attorney S. Derek Bauer and the nonprofit Georgia First Amendment Foundation, brought pressure upon the city to provide clear, reliable audio and video livestreams for citizens to be able to observe meetings of the city council and other governing bodies.

Read letters from the UGA First Amendment Clinic to the City of Forest Park here.

The controversy eventually drew national attention in The Washington Post.

The meeting itself was plagued by uneven audio which was inaudible in spots, which Jacob Ledbetter, NCI’s senior sales engineer, called a “use case.”

NCI’s clients include AT&T, Norfolk Southern, IBM, NCR, and Lexis/Nexis.

The city was presented with cost estimates for two setups.

The less expensive one ($28,594) would have required a staff person to ride herd over switching camera views, much like a television technical director, taking responsibility for which shots to choose and microphones to open for viewers to see and hear during the livestreamed discussions.

The more expensive one ($36,810), which the city voted to adopt, would offer a less labor-intensive “one-button” solution, with an employee essentially hitting a “Livestream” button on a 7-inch touchscreen that would turn on the whole setup. That system also would have inputs for presentations via various systems.

That whole system also can be reinstalled in another location, Ledbetter said, such as the new City Hall that officials are planning to build in the next year or two. NCI would warranty the entire system for one year, with various manufacturers offering longer warranties on the cameras and other components, typically three years.

Councilwoman Kimberly James questioned the need for the upgrade.

“We just had an update,” she said. “We just got new microphones.” She added that she thought Option One’s multiple cameras showing “different angles, that kind of thing–this chamber is not that big. People are accustomed to coming up to the mic….I’m not sure of the need.”

She added that she wanted the contract “not to include multiple cameras with all different angles because with the size of our room, that’s not even necessary.”

However, a single room can require multiple camera angles for complete coverage. A camera angle is simply a single point of view–such as each councilmember, the mayor, the speakers’s podium, the city staff table, the city attorney, two audience areas, and the dais as a whole.

“This meeting is basically a use case,” NCI’s rep said. “The fact that you have to walk around with one microphone, the fact that you have one camera seeing the sides of everyone’s head.” He added that his company solves these problems all the time.

Trudy Smith pointed out that the gear would become obsolete at some point.

“The lady makes a good point,” Steve Bernard said. “Technology changes. Is it a system that can be upgraded as technology changes?”

“Yes,” Ledbetter said.

As for the cost, he explained, “You’re already being a good steward of that funding because,” as other locales have done, “you could go to $100,000 in that size of a room.”

Mayor Angelyne Butler suggested that the appointed boards, which also would use the system, split the cost.

“You meet more often than we do,” Lois Wright pointed out.

Steve Bernard asked, “What’s the ratio? What’s the percentage?”

Butler suggested the city council pay 55 percent and each appointed board pay 15 percent. The council and each board voted to pass the measure.

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