By Trevor Busch
Town council is examining ways it can make its decisions more accessible to the general public through the employment of various social media platforms, which could include live-streaming meetings in future.
According to administration, council has expressed interest in looking at new ways of engaging the public in regards to council meetings, as well as making decisions more immediately accessible to the public. As the Town of Taber steers toward a “more open communications plan,” the options available for communicating council meetings “are a great place to start.”
“You guys have been interested in the different ways that we can communicate with our residents,” said finance director and acting CAO Devon Wannop, speaking at council’s Nov. 28 regular meeting. “Obviously, the media is a good one-way, but we were looking at taking a look at us providing the information instead of relying on media. I’m not saying that they do a bad job, just saying that we want to get out information that we provide.”
Administration had researched options for council to take into consideration and implement.
“For example live-tweeting, free to us — it (could be) set up specifically for council, and it’s only used for their live-tweeting and records their minutes and agendas,” said communications and project co-ordinator Meghan Brennan. “That’s something the Town of Taber can do. If we were to set up a separate account, you can make it private initially, so we can do a test run of live-tweeting a meeting. The public won’t see it, so council can see how that would pan out.”
Other options presented to council included YouTube Live, Facebook Live, Periscope, as well as other options such as LiveStream, UStream, YouNow or Bamuser.
“Then we go to YouTube Live. The City of Toronto is by far the best example,” said Brennan. “For video purposes, my professional opinion is this would work the best for council. The Facebook option only allows for 90 minutes worth of video, and obviously your council minutes usually go far longer than that, so it would cut off at some point. YouTube can go on — as you can see — for three and a half hours in Toronto. The nice thing about YouTube is if someone wants to go to a specific item agenda, all you do is click on the pop up, and it’s already gone and skipped ahead 30 minutes in the video. So that takes administrative time after the video’s been uploaded for somebody to go in and make those time pop ups. It’s totally available to us, the only thing we would probably have to buy is a camera that would work with this.”
A third option, Facebook, has varying advantages and disadvantages for the town, according to Brennan.
“For Facebook — Travel Alberta used it during the Calgary Stampede fireworks, 90 minutes — the nice thing is you can see live comments, so if council wanted instant feedback from their viewers, people who comment, you can respond to people in real time by name, and those comments remain. Once the video is done, it’s uploaded to our Facebook page, right to the top, and those comments remain for council’s consideration.”
“Those are just some of the options. There’s Periscope, in my professional opinion I don’t think that’s going to work for council’s consideration, but it is available for shorter bursts of time. Storm chasers mainly use Periscope.”
According to administration, “Open communication allows the public to be better informed and engage more thoroughly with council. Technology allows us to access a wider demographic of citizens who may not always be able to attend meetings. Municipalities all across Canada have started implementing more social media platforms, videos, and news bulletins to allow citizens to gain information as easily as possible to a great deal of success. Creating a clear channel of communications makes council and their decisions more accessible to the public, and allows the public to better engage with their local government.”
“This is great as far as computer usage, but I think somebody asked before, specifically me, was the fact that a lot of people — the 50-plus crowd — don’t have computers, or don’t have access to that, or may not read the paper,” said Coun. Andrew Prokop. “So I think we’re looking at that group also. This is great, what you’ve disclosed so far, for that target audience, but there’s a large audience that may not have a computer available, and I think we need to look at that part also.”
Mayor Henk DeVlieger requested if briefs of town decisions at meetings can be posted on the town’s Facebook page.
“With Facebook, for instance, we have our council meeting, decisions are made, is it possible to do a little write up in your department, and then the next day putting that on Facebook? Is that a different way of what you just explained to us? I noticed Facebook — I got on it here a few months ago, just to scroll through it to see what’s going on in the community. I’m amazed how many older people are actually on Facebook. So It’s one way of communicating besides the other means that we have.”
Brennan suggested such a policy would be easy to implement, but would have implications for staff time.
“So for something like that, we would probably do up a Word document to take a screen shot of it to make a picture, just so people can open the picture and see all the motions. That’s the easiest way to do it, or we can do a giant wall post, whatever council decides. Those options are available to us right now, the only cost is administration’s time. To provide you context, our demographic on Facebook right now, our highest amount of users are women aged 33 to 55.”
Coun. Laura Ross-Giroux suggested following the Municipal District of Taber’s lead in formulating a semi-regular publication for the public.
“What I like is the M.D. (of Taber) paper that they put out four times a year. Even something like that, that we put out every second month or something, or every third month, that might include what’s been happening at town council and events around town. I really like that idea, too.”
DeVlieger pointed out the town has a similar publication already, the Cornhusk Chronicles, which is received by all town utility users in the community.
“Right now what we have is our monthly Cornhusk that comes with our utility bills, which means that all the people in Taber pretty well makes sure they get it. That’s usually about four or five pages already. So we have something similar on a monthly basis already.”
Ross-Giroux noted that the Chronicles do not reach every resident of the community (including many who may rent) or those outside the municipal boundaries.
“But that’s only available to town users, whereas the M.D. paper anybody can have it if they live in town or out of town. I think YouTube is a really good idea, whether we go live, or as you said the next day or whatever. It is transparency, and I think it’s a good idea and you go where you want with it.”
Coun. Joe Strojwas indicated the town could mandate a wider distribution for the Chronicles if it was desired.
“What you could do is manually print off some of the Cornhusk-ers, and put them around town in the coffee places and everybody can have access to them. There’s different organizations that put those papers out, so that would be a better avenue.”
Coun. Rick Popadynetz was cautious in his support for enhancing the town’s social media profile.
“I believe in technology if you take steps, small steps. I think the YouTube video is a great idea, but that’s kind of a giant leap. I think we need to get out in the public with a Facebook posting after council, because I believe a lot of people 33 to 55 years old will be talking about this. Facebook is something that my generation uses incredibly.”
While there is no direct financial implication for the town in selecting a free media platform, there could be potential costs involved for technology and equipment, such as a camera, as well as software that could be bought and used for communications purposes.
Staff members would be required to set up and run any equipment used for potentially live-streaming meetings, while live-tweeting would require a staff member dedicated solely to tweeting the meeting as it happens. Any press releases or news bulletins posted after meetings would also need to be compiled by administrative staff following a meeting.
“My only concern with this whole thing is we can say the costs are minimal because it’s just administration’s time,” said Coun. Randy Sparks. “Well what is that time? I need to know what that is, because the next thing you know we’ll have to hire someone because it’s taking too much of administration’s time. I have a concern with that, because you as administration, your time is very valuable, and if you’re taking time out of your busy schedule to do this, then your other stuff isn’t getting taken care of. These are good ideas — I am not a Facebook fan, I believe far too many people waste far too much time when they could be doing good or better things with their time — but if want to get the word out I guess we need to do this. I’m not literate with this stuff in the least, but I have a concern with the cost to administration, and I think that has a big impact on the decision that council makes.”
Strojwas questioned if enhancing the town’s social media profile was really what council’s intention was when they decided to hire a communications specialist in 2015.
“We hired Meghan (Brennan) as a communications individual. Is this what we wanted when we hired her, in her job description? Is this in her job description? I’d like to go back and review that, because we hired an individual to do some of this communication, is this where we intended to go with this individual when we hired her?”
Wannop was quick to suggest that discussion might stray into personnel issues that are more properly discussed in camera (closed session).
“That might be going a little bit into administration operational discussions, but I can’t tell you that’s in her job description, and I don’t know if we’re comfortable discussing that.”
The position was hired as a hybrid involving other aspects not related to communications, according to administrative services manager Kerry Van Ham.
“Communications is only one part of her job. At the time, Mr. Birch was here, and there’s a percentage of projects, doing grant applications, there’s a variety of other projects that council has thoughts and issues with concerning administration. At the time that the position was formulated — communications is always something if council wishes to have changes or expand. At the time, I don’t know if this was a specific consideration at that time.”
Consideration of the position was initiated following the provincial, national, and international attention that was focused on the town’s controversial Community Standards Bylaw in early 2015, according to DeVlieger.
“To elaborate on that, basically what started it was the bylaw (Community Standards Bylaw). That got the whole discussion going on how can the town respond, and that’s how actually the discussion got started on hiring a position like that.”
Strojwas still appeared to be luke-warm to the potential implications of implementing an enhanced social media profile.
“That’s where I was going with that, and I think that’s what the intent of council was, because we had a communications problem back then. I think what we need to do it maybe look at this culture with Meghan, this is where we went with that communication, and see if this is the area we want to go. We have the individual, do we need to go that one step further?”
Mayor DeVlieger signalled a desire for town council to have more effective control over the message reaching the eyes and ears of the general public.
“Myself, I think we have to go with the times. There’s more and more people that are starting to use Facebook, Twitter, and there’s other means, too. It seems like every time there’s something new again. I think communication is very important, especially as we as town can have communication first hand, and maybe even control as to how it’s published — I think to me that’s very important.”
Following discussion, town council voted unanimously (6-0) to accept the communications options for council for information purposes. Coun. Jack Brewin was absent from the meeting.