Kentucky’s open meetings and open records laws ensure that every Kentuckian is entitled to know what action their local government is taking and how those actions will impact them, their family, and their business.
During the pandemic, that has been a unique challenge. The city of Grayson, the city of Olive Hill, and the Carter County Fiscal Court, among other elected and appointed bodies, have met in person and virtually throughout the pandemic. Even when the council or other governing body met in person, meetings were sometimes held behind closed and locked doors because of the need for social distancing associated with the pandemic.
One way that governmental bodies, especially the two city councils, were able to handle these meetings safely was to keep the doors shut, but to broadcast their meetings over social media via a livestream to Facebook. While the two cities took different approaches – Grayson held their meetings online via Facebook Live but did not save those videos after the meeting concluded, while Olive Hill streamed their meetings and kept the videos of those meetings archived online for later viewing – both did provide some form of access that corresponded with the same time frame as their original meeting times.
Grayson has further noted that their meetings, even those otherwise closed to the public, were open to media coverage throughout the pandemic. While Olive Hill didn’t unlock their doors to anyone but council members and necessary city staff, their preservation of the meetings after their conclusion meant they were available for the media, and anyone else, to preview at their own convenience.
Both cities have now moved back to in-person meetings, but there could still be benefits to the public in live-streaming those meetings as they occur.
There were some issues with streaming only. It was sometimes difficult to hear exactly what different council members, guests, or the mayor were saying – especially with masked speakers – but lackluster audio can be overcome with more and better microphones and placement. This is something both cities and the county should consider for an inevitable future where streaming, either in full or in part, will be a fixture of public meetings.
Grayson’s practice of streaming only during the meeting time period, and not preserving the video of those meetings online, was technically in line with Kentucky state law. Just as open meetings are advertised, and participants must show up during those times to be part of the meeting, the virtual meetings allow access during the scheduled meeting time. But the city has an opportunity to increase their transparency and public access by preserving those videos. While they may not want to leave them on social media, where off topic comments and complaints can muddy the conversation, preserving them online in some other manner would benefit citizens, journalists, and future historians who want a glimpse into the early 21st century government process.
Olive Hill did leave their videos online after meetings were adjourned, improving access for all interested parties. But they also suffered from the same technical issues related to audio and video quality that other governing bodies experienced. They too could benefit from better microphones, better recording equipment, and editing – to remove the dead time during executive session – before preserving their videos for posterity.
While both cities and the fiscal court have returned to traditional meetings, we support a future where all in-person meetings are recorded and either live-streamed as the meeting occurs or made available through the cities’ and county’s websites in the days after the meeting is concluded. Regardless of whether they are live-streamed at the time of the meeting or posted later, a record should be readily available for all who want to view it.
We’re journalists. We understand the role of journalists as witnesses and interpreters of events as they unfold. But our readers and listeners should also be able to view the source material directly, even if they can’t make it out to the meeting.
We have the technology to be more transparent. All we need now is the will to utilize it.