With some exceptions, local boards committed to livestreaming meetings post-pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic brought changes in how local government entities share their work with the public.
FARGO — A tool meant to keep the public informed of the work of local government entities at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic will continue to be used in most instances, but not all.
Livestreaming has been the norm for city, school and park board meetings in Fargo, West Fargo and Moorhead, as well as Cass County and Clay County commission meetings, either before or since the pandemic took hold in spring of 2020 and in-person gatherings were suspended.
But livestreaming has been discontinued by a few entities now that the pandemic and its public health measures have eased.
The West Fargo School Board, for example, only provided a livestream option when it couldn’t meet in person, said district spokesperson Heather Leas.
Once the board was back on site, it ended the livestream option and encouraged stakeholders to join in person, she said.
West Fargo School Board President Jim Jonas said that while streaming does allow for a “good record of transparency,” the live feeds of their meetings had limited viewership.
He said he could see a time when their school board meetings are livestreamed again, but not in the near future.
Administrative staff at the West Fargo Park District also opted recently to discontinue streaming its board meetings, which were previously available to the public on the video communications platform Zoom.
Todd Rheault, president of the West Fargo Park District, said the Zoom sessions were stopped primarily because the district has large meeting spaces at the Rustad Recreation Center, allowing ample space for social distancing.
“Our board loves having the community attend our meetings and give input in person,” Rheault said in a statement.
Still, the trend toward reaching more people through livestreaming or public access TV broadcasts is clear.
Besides the two examples stated above, the other key government boards in the metro area indicated they’re continuing to livestream their meetings, including the Fargo City Commission, Fargo School Board, Fargo Park Board, West Fargo City Commission, Moorhead City Council, Moorhead School Board and Moorhead Park Advisory Board, along with the commissions of Cass and Clay counties.
Fargo city spokesperson Gregg Schildberger said Fargo has livestreamed meetings for at least 15 years. And coinciding with a move into the new City Hall building in 2018, the city made that commitment part of its policy, he said.
The city agreed to continue investing in technology and personnel in order to promote transparency in government, and it makes efforts to televise, livestream and webcast regularly scheduled and special meetings of committees, commissions, boards and task forces appointed by the City Commission, Schildberger said.
The meetings are transmitted via its public access television network, its dedicated website TVFargo.com, and its social media channels on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
The city of West Fargo has made similar commitments by livestreaming city meetings on YouTube and its public access channel, and adding Zoom and phone options when the pandemic hit, said West Fargo spokesperson Melissa Richard.
When deciding whether to livestream meetings other than those of the City Commission, Richard said cost and staffing come into consideration.
The timeliness, importance and community interest in the topic are weighed against the time and resources available to provide the livestream, she said.
For Moorhead Area Public Schools, board meetings held pre-pandemic were audio-recorded only and posted online afterward, said district spokesperson Brenda Richman.
The board’s first livestreamed meeting was on March 23, 2020, coinciding with the district’s first virtual school board meeting.
That practice has gone on since and there is no plan to discontinue it, Richman said.
Some local governments are even considering expanding their livestreaming capabilities, in the interest of connecting even more with their residents.
West Fargo is working to coordinate its livestream with an agenda management system, so that videos and City Commission meeting agendas work together, Richard said.
The system is expected to roll out this fall, she said.
Fargo is also evaluating ways to further increase public participation options for those who may be unable to attend in-person meetings, Schildberger said.
And in Cass County, spokesperson Catlin Solum said the county is aiming to improve the livestream technology it scrambled to put in place when the pandemic took hold.
The county streams commission meetings on its Facebook page and on YouTube, an advantage for those living in rural areas of the county who’d otherwise have to drive to Fargo to take part.
“We’ve definitely gotten comments from residents,” Solum said. “They appreciate the option.”