Story and picture by Hal Goodtree.
Cary, NC – Kudos to Town staff for bringing up the issue of electronic meetings. Now, Town Council needs to show support for this important initiative.
First, a simple definition: an electronic meeting is a way to get together without being in the same room. WebEx and Google Hangout are two popular video-enabled electronic meetings. But a conference call (on a phone) can also be considered an electronic meeting.
Video conferencing has been around for years. Conference calls on a phone have been around for decades. So, at this point, it’s safe to say electronic meetings are familiar to most people.
Some electronic meetings, like Google Hangout, can be broadcast. This enables a virtually unlimited number of people to observe a meeting in real time.
Electronic meeting technologies can be scaled. But from a practical standpoint, let’s say the limit on participants is around 20 without undue cost and effort.
Participants in electronic meetings can hear, see, talk and be heard just as if they were in the room.
Electronic meetings can also be recorded, broadcast at a later date and archived for posterity.
Millions of people everyday get together, collaborate and make decisions via electronic meetings, from office workers to the President of the United States.
What Cary Needs to Do
The proposal currently before Council concerns Boards and Commissions.
Town Council needs to approve this initiative and give staff some running room to pilot a program.
Start small, but start right.
- Equip a Town Hall conference room for regular electronic (video) meetings.
- Broadcast and record the meetings
- Set up rules for citizen participation. Since “Public Speaks Out” is one person at a time, we should be able to live within the limits of simultaneous participation.
- Allow Board and Commission members to participate and vote via electronic meetings.
Right now, Council seems to be discussing only audience participation. This is a shortsighted perspective. Voting members should also be able to participate, and their attendance and votes should count (not currently the situation). There are legal ramifications to this position, but “an abundance of caution” should not bleed over into an abhorrence of change.
As we gain experience, we can refine and perfect the process and the rules.
Robert Campbell, a member of Cary’s Information Services Advisory Board (ISAB), has a unique perspective on the issue. “This is all about expanding, not restricting,” Campbell said.
“Leave it up to the individual boards to determine their best way of using the technology, don’t impose arbitrary limits on how they might use it — especially since the majority of boards are there to provide advice, let them develop that advice and use what they find appropriate.”
The biggest reason to enable widespread, everyday use of electronic meetings: Sunshine.
Few people attend Board and Commission meetings – the audience is often zero. Citizens have complained about the hardship of getting to and from meetings based on distance from their homes (Cary is 53 square miles), disabilities and C-Tran schedules.
Instead of bringing people to the meetings, WebEx, GoToMeeting and Google Hangout bring the meetings to the people.
The second good reason to march confidently down the road of electronic meetings: using technology to engage citizens should be a priority for our Town. Here’s a chance to make that true.
We should use our nascent social media channels to support electronic meetings. Facebook and Twitter could be used to both promote electronic meetings and even to gather feedback and commentary.
The proposal from staff opens a window on the future of Cary. Council should support electronic meetings for both audience members and appointed officials.