Ingham County’s Board of Commissioners quietly stopped video recording its meetings, ostensibly to save money.
The decision was prompted by a February email from Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum as a possible cost-saving measure as commissioners faced a budget crisis. In April, commissioners approved a resolution that ended a contract with Granicus, a digital service provider.
“The Video/Audio Recording System used to record the Board of Commissioners meetings has been showing signs of failure over the past few years,” she wrote. “It is to the point where I believe a decision should be made by the Board of Commissioners on whether or not the system should be replaced or no longer used. As you are being faced with tough budget decisions, this could be a cost-saving opportunity.”
Bids to replace the system came it at about $81,000, Byrum wrote in the email. The new system would have used voice-activated technology to focus a camera on a speaker as well as broadcast the video online.
“This is not an effort to limit transparency,” said Republican Commissioner Randy Maiville in an email. “The full board meetings the past few years have been brief, civil and non-contentious. If the meetings are audio recorded how much effort, technology and expense should the county invest to have video for about five or six hours a year?” “While the Board’s meetings are no longer videotaped, all meeting minutes can be accessed online at no charge to the public or the press,” wrote Sarah Anthony, chairwoman of the commission, in an email. “This practice is in compliance with the Open Meetings Act.”
Byrum told commissioners at an April 19 Finance Committee meeting that audio from meetings would be “openly posted” on the county website. The audio was to be posted by Becky Bennett, the director of the Board of Commissioners’ Office. However, in a search of the county website on Monday night, nearly five months after the contract with the service provider was canceled, no audio files for recent meetings were located.
Bennett said on Tuesday morning that when the county ended the contract with Granicus, it left the website without the tools to upload audio.
“That’s part of the reason we need to upgrade the website,” Bennett said.
Commissioners last week approved a contract for Revize LLC to do that work, including security upgrades, for $99,000. That’s on top of another $20,000 paid to Gravity Works for the similar work.
East Lansing Commissioner Mark Grebner said the video was an unnecessary thing. He was on the commission when then County Commissioner Virg Bernero pushed for the recordings.
“I said at the time it was a bad idea whose time had come,” Grebner said of video recording.
For the longtime commissioner, video introduced an element which allowed people to grandstand for the cameras and distract from the work of the commission.
Bernero on Monday confirmed Grebner’s opposition.
“I just don’t understand this,” Bernero said. “This is about democracy and government transparency. Grebner has apparently been able to convince his fellow commissioners to take a step back.”
As for the plan to make audio of the meetings available online, Bernero was aghast.
“Can you imagine anything more boring than watching the meetings? That would be listening to them.”
Early in his tenure at City Hall, Bernero said he directed staff at the city’s public access station to work with the county to obtain and broadcast the video of the commission’s meetings. Until last month, the city, he said, had no clue the county was ending the video recording.
“I wanted people to know what the commissioners were doing,” he said. He said he watched them himself “It’s a way for people to know what is happening and what people are doing,” he said.
Cable access is funded in part by money raised from franchise fees from cable providers. But state law prohibits countiess from applying for and using that money, said Ingham County Controller Tim Dolehanty. But cities, like Lansing, can and do access those funds. That would have been a likely place for a regional partnership, Bernero said. However, he said no one from the county reached out to the city and its public access station to seek a partnership.
“We didn’t even know anything about it until we got a letter about it,” he said. With only six weeks left in office, Bernero said he would encourage incoming Mayor Andy Schor, who also served on the county commission, to explore a partnership with the county to make the video recording available again in the future.
This is the second time since August that the commission has come under fire for what appears to be a rollback of transparency efforts. Back then, City Pulse reported commissioners attempted to circumvent the Open Meetings Act to discuss troubling audit findings related to the county treasurer. That post is held by Democrat Eric Schertzing.
At the time, Grebner defended the actions.
“The voters can’t have both: us, like, actually dealing with reality,” Grebner said. “And doing it in a public session. And therefore, we do this privately.”
Mason-area Commissioner Robin Case Naeyerart said she was disappointed by the decision to end the video broadcasts. “When I was elected to the Mason City Council, I was astonished to learn how many people were watching our meetings online and on television,” the Republican lawmaker said. “I think this is a step back from transparency.”
Case Naeyerart, who works for the GOP in the state Legislature, said she found irony between the actions of local Democrats and the vocal demands for transparency by state leaders of the party.
“On a state level, we are hearing over and over about transparency from Democrats,” she said. “But here we are locally and we see them moving away from transparency. That’s not lost on me.”
As a Republican, she’s in the super-minority on the Commission. She’s one of only three GOP commissioners on the 14-member body. And that super-majority raises another transparency issue for the body.