Flyover debate changes some Hilton Head council members' views on airing meetings

bheffernan@islandpacket.comMarch 13, 2013 

This rendering, supplied by Beaufort County, shows the proposed flyover bridges of the Bluffton Parkway that would connect to U.S. 278 near the bridge to Hilton Head Island.

B — Submitted photo

Some Hilton Head Island Town Council members seem willing to revisit the idea of broadcasting their meetings, a change of heart brought on by last month's Bluffton Parkway flyover debates.

Council members could not agree whether to air their meetings during their retreat in November, but some who had criticized the idea are now warming to it. That includes Councilman George Williams and Mayor Drew Laughlin.

They said they were swayed when they realized how convenient it was to watch Beaufort County meetings online.

Williams said at the March 5 Town Council meeting that he watched county meetings during the flyover debate and determined "this would be a very good opportunity to go forward with Web streaming."

Previously, Laughlin was concerned a camera in the room would lead to grandstanding and prolonged meetings.

"My general impression is that if someone knows that they are on camera, they may act a little differently than if they were just talking to people in the room," he said.

Laughlin said he is now leans toward airing the meetings, although he first wants to determine the cost to do so.

Town staff has explored broadcasting council meetings but still needs a couple of months to make a recommendation, according to town officials.

Options include buying equipment to record the meetings and post the footage online afterward, or contracting with the county to air meetings, according to assistant town manager Greg DeLoach.

The Beaufort County School District pays the county $22,500 a year to air Board of Education meetings and other videos used in classrooms, according to county public information officer Joy Nelson. A similar arrangement could be negotiated with the town, she said in a news release.

The county pays four full-time employees to manage its broadcast channel, which, in addition to airing meeting footage, shows documentaries, public service announcements, military news and other shows, according to Nelson.

Startup costs for the County Channel, including all equipment and infrastructure, was $250,000, according to the release.

'FINANCIAL DASHBOARD'

The town's deliberations about making meetings more accessible to the public comes as its financial statements have been made easier to view. A "financial dashboard" graphic was added last week on its website. It shows monthly town revenue and expense data for fiscal year 2012-13.

Most charts on the graphic will be updated monthly as new data become available, DeLoach said.

"I think it's the first step toward total transparency. It's a very good beginning," said Councilman John McCann, who was elected this past November and campaigned on a pledge to make town financial records and meetings more accessible.

Town officials said they are unsure of how much Web traffic the tool will draw.

"I think there are probably a few people on the island that will find it interesting, but I think it's important that we offer it whether or not the page is going to get a lot of hits," DeLoach said.

Within three months, the town will begin posting quarterly financial statements online, listed as a high priority in the council's 2013 strategic plan.

"The more information that you put out there on a regular basis, whether its financial or televising Town Council, the better you are," McCann said.

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