Council Chambers Online: Resident says “Meh, it’s not that hard”

New Westminster Mayor and Council

Monday night council meetings are a thing to behold! They are open to the public and while many citizens do attend, the process of a council meeting, which can be long and tedious, is often just a bit to late, or early (or dull) to attend in person.

Hey, the city gets that, and for several years the civic goings on of our wise and venerable Mayor & Council have been available on TV on the Shaw community channel. It makes for some … er … riveting viewing … but at least you can do so in the comfort of your own home and with a brewskie or two. In fact I know of a few folks so infused with civic pride that they have made these meetings a regular drinking game with friends! I don’t quite know how this works, a drink for every motion? Each time Councilor McEvoy mentions the poor and downtrodden? Each time a civic supplicant humbly offers up a set of ‘special’ T-shirts to M&C? Perhaps a swizzle each time the ever-smiling Councillor McIntosh flashes those pearly whites? I don’t know, but it sounds like a good time!

But what happens to those of us in our increasingly fragmented media landscape who do not have access to Shaw’s service? There was a time when the radio was the universal communicator and could reliably provide information about local proceedings, alien invasion etc., but today, many media compete to deliver the message. Many folks receive their cable service from a different provider or via satellite. Others don’t have cable or, like us, have no TV channels at all coming into our house. Increasingly, families are cutting their TV services and turning to the Internet for news, events and entertainment. Now no doubt, all of these groups are a minority, but it is a growing minority, an ever-widening slice of the pie.

What would council do to address these lost eyeballs? As related in a recent blog post by Record Reporter Theresa McManus our intrepid M&C directed staff to study the cost of streaming council meetings over the internet via video to the taxalicious cost of close to $25k per year and a one time $25k set up cost. A mind-boggling sum! Incredulity from the younger members of council filled the air as our august body of sober leaders absorbed the high cost implications of communicating data via a medium known for cheap or free broadcasting. (I can see it now, Cote and McEvoy rolling their eyes in unison as if they have just witnessed their grandfolks trying to change the TV channel with an iPod). Thankfully curiosity (or procrastination) prevailed, and our beloved M&C chose to look further into what the whippersnappers say is popular with those crazy kids today.

While there are special considerations governments must consider when choosing new technology, there are several popular free live video streaming services on the Internet, including Ustream,, and more. With a webcam or video camera and a tripod (we’ll even loan you ours), a laptop and an Internet connection, Council could test public response to streaming video at very little cost. If a more robust solution is needed, then they could consider spending a little more on a proprietary solution or invest some staff or contractor time to slice & dice the video into shorter, subject-specific segments that could be made available for watching & embedding via YouTube or another free video hosting service. Ustream and both also offer live chat integration with Facebook, so council could broadcast meetings and those watching could share real-time feedback via Facebook chat. How’s that for public participation?

Meanwhile, as if to say, “Look, it’s not rocket science people!”, local resident Matthew Laird ( Quayside board President and also on the board of NWEP & the Royal City Farmers Market, active on various committees, and a former provincial and civic candidate) has been industriously tweeting about how it can be done easily and has uploaded video from every council meeting since December. Says Matt:

I’m still getting my process down, determining what video format to post them in, getting my routine down to record and post them, etc.  I think I have a system in place now…I agree with Jonathan’s comment…it should easily be possible for less than $20,000.  Sounds like an excuse not to get the issue done.

Matthew Laird

Sure it is little grainy and may take 5-10 minutes to load but Laird’s work clearly demonstrates that with a minimum of effort and flexibility, streaming council meetings over the web can be done. What is more, they can be viewed at any time – not just on the broadcast date. For the referees in us who want to review the tapes before calling the penalty, these files can be stored and reviewed for reference should the need arise. As with Pitt Meadows and North Vancouver, the Royal City should also leap into the digital era and allow all residents to monitor council proceedings, and review them at will, via the Internet.

13 Replies to “Council Chambers Online: Resident says “Meh, it’s not that hard””

  1. I still think we need a Monday night pub & politics night. Way more fun than watching hockey at the bar. Well, to me anyway.

  2. I ran in to Janaya Fuller-Evans of The Record at Production Station this evening, she said they will no longer be attending ALL council meetings, only when big issues break. Even more reason to get these meetings online, even so the media can at least see them! 🙂

  3. If you look at the City of North Vancouver website, a city about the same size, they have an archive of council meetings going back to 2003! And we’re just discussing, maybe, putting ours online now, in 2010.

    For the tech-lovers out there who might be curious on the full process, here’s how I’m doing it.

    Its actually a very simple process, a $120 capture card (Hauppauge WinTV-1600) from NCIX (I already have a few in my homebrew PVR I’ve had for years), it runs off an open source package called MythTV ( under linux on a 6 year old PC, dime a dozen these days. I over-record the video the length so I don’t miss anything (as you can see from the earlier recordings where it is cut off) then use another open source package called GOPchop to quickly trim down the MPEG, a process that takes no more than 5 minutes.

    Finally the open source video encoder mencoder is used to transcode the video from the typically about 6GB MPEG-2 file to a smaller XviD video. That takes about 2.5 hours to run on a dual-core machine, but is easily something that could just be left running overnight on an older machine like the PVR itself.

    Finally storage, hard drives are CHEAP these days. I picked up a 2TB drive for work two weeks ago, $150 at NCIX. That would be enough to store over 200 meetings worth of the original high quality version of the videos. Yes in an enterprise system like the city would use (and I maintain professionally myself) its a little more per GB, but still dirt cheap, I’d estimate easily less than $20/meeting for storage on a large RAID6 system like they probably already have to store all their other documents. I bet that’s less than they spend on coffee and other materials for the meeting.

    The only issue is when the meeting isn’t broadcast via Shaw, for example during WHL playoffs when it can be preempted. However if the City was doing this I’m sure they could arrange Shaw be there even when the meeting isn’t broadcast.

    I would love to see the Committee of the Whole meetings broadcast as well and almost think that’s more important since its where many discussions occur. I’ve noticed in Committee Room 2 there is already a camera mounted on the wall. This feed could easily be plugged in to a MythTV box as described above. Sure you wouldn’t get the panning to individual council members as they spoke, it would likely just be a wide angle shot of the room, so what. That’s how many video conferences are already done, what they say is more important than a cameo and face-time on camera.

    We’ve inquired with Shaw last year about copyright issues and I have a copy of an email from Shaw where they waive permission for residents to record council meetings.

  4. @ Matthew, I have the official word on the current rules to the New West Council telecast drinking game:

    Players will raise a glass when:

    "Osterman displays righteous indignation (take two drinks if it

    involves A Variance)

    McEvoy displays earnestness

    McIntosh Smooths Things Over (usually after Osterman)

    Mayor Wright looks like he's thinking about his laundry, vacation

    or anything except whoever is talking

    …that's usually enough for us, what with the two small kids who

    get up at 5 am & all."

    But I think we can make up our own rules…

  5. I'm going to bite my tongue somewhat on this one since this is a public forum, but I could probably think of a few more…

    The one I will offer is:

    Every time the timer beeps at some unrelated moment to actually timing someone's 5 minutes because it wasn't stopped (premature beeping during someone's 5 minutes because it wasn't reset from the previous speaker counts too)

  6. All right, I’m gonna find us a bar and I’m gonna put this together. What time does the meeting start, 7:00PM? Ever since we went to Telus TV we no longer get the Shaw channel and I’ll be honest, I kind of miss it. I used to totally get a kick out of watching from the comforts of my own home.

  7. I attended and spoke at the Monday, April 12, 2010 Council meeting. I was there as President of the Queens Park Resident's Association speaking to the matter of a controversial application to alter a designated heritage house.

    Of note at the meeting was an announcement that Theresa McManus of The Record would no longer attend council meetings on a regular basis (unless something of "particular interest" was on the agenda), leaving the City with potentially zero media coverage of the meetings.

    This development supports the idea of making the meetings web accessible.

  8. The News Leader hasn’t covered council for years. Now, given the news that council will no longer be covered by The Record I think it is that much more important for it to be web-cast. It will also make alternative media coverage more important too.

  9. Now maybe it’s because I work in TV, and maybe because my first job in TV was doing Abbotsford Council Meetings for Rogers Cable, but $25,000 setup and $25,000 a year sounds incredibly cheap. Let’s really break it down.

    Yes, you could get a crap camera and a capture card at NCIX and go to town, but nobody is going to watch anything that looks like garbage. Even the Shaw 3 camera coverage has a minuscule audience of hardcore council watchers, make people work to watch it through a crappy webcam and terrible audio, the audience would be non-existant. It really doesn’t take that much to make a halfway decent live show anymore.

    $25,000 will get you a couple of cameras and something like a Tricaster (or even better a Broadcast Pix) so you could have a couple of shots. An audio board (which you really need for gain control on council meetings, the house feed raw is always terrible), and more importantly, graphics telling you what they’re talking about. The streaming can be had for free, but you’ve got to pay the people who are doing the show, which is where your $25,000 a year comes from. If you expect people to show up to council week after week and be reliable, a little stipend goes a long way.

    Now that being said, if you just streamed the Shaw broadcasts it would be simpler, which they would be happy to allow I’m sure. The real value would be having someone do a cutdown of the meeting and posting it online as a highlights package. That takes someone’s time, and over the long haul, that takes a little money.

    How about taking that money to sponsor 10th to the Fraser to handle the project? That would get my vote 🙂

  10. Years ago I was originally heading in the direction of television production (I was pretty good in the editing suite if I do say so myself and have the videos to prove it 🙂 so I do understand that the $150 NCIX capture card route is definitely the least desirable option for quality.

    I completely agree that streaming the Shaw broadcast is the first step to take, particularly with the points raised above that unless you’re still using the Shaw analog signal in to your TV you have no way to watch the broadcast. And that would be a very easy step, you already have Shaw there with the cameras and doing the audio leveling. It would also be an easy step to save these streams for on-demand streaming as I do. I could save them for download as a higher quality but quite frankly I just don’t feel like paying for the extra disk space on my server. For the 7pm council meetings, most of the hard work is already done by Shaw.

    The afternoon meetings are a different story, while I agree having the full Shaw-type setup with multi-camera, audio leveling, titles, etc would be optimal, I’m simply saying if Council is balking at what I agree is peanuts compared to other wasteful spending they undertake, a stream from the camera in the corner of Committee Room 2 is better than nothing. I’d rather get a wide angle shot with horrible audio than having to take time off work to attend and listen to an issue I might be interested in. And if it allows the media to better cover these meetings as well, that’s fantastic. Its all about taking steps, however small, to increase transparency and accountability.

  11. M&C = Macaroni and Cheese.

    "Incredulity from the younger members of council filled the air"

    Don't let your wife read that part.

    I think it is a total waste of money when it's already being broadcast on television. They have minutes too you know. Who looks back at council meetings anyhow, and with the cast of characters we have I'm sure they don't want ANY recording of the meetings for future reference!

    What we need is to determine how many people watch the meetings in the first place before we go off and buy tomorrows electronic junk.


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