By ROBERT PIERCE
• Leader & Times
Until recently, Seward County residents who wish to be informed on their local county government have had the option of attending the commission meetings on the first and third Monday of each month or watching the meeting on local cable access Channel 15.
Thanks to a project done by Mark Rohlf and Vanessa Reever, those interested in the happenings of government in Seward County now have another option for watching the meetings.
On July 21, the first livestream broadcast of a commission meeting took place on the county’s Web site at www.sewardcountyks.org. The idea is the brainchild of Rohlf, the county’s information technology director, and Reever, a tax clerk in the county clerk’s office.
The county employees took on the project as a Capstone project for a certified public managers class in 2013. Rohlf said he and Reever had talked about livestreaming the meetings before that, but the process had never gotten past the talking stage.
“When Vanessa and I took the CPM class, we decided to use it as our Capstone project and present it to the commissioners,” he said.
Rohlf said initially, the commission had some hesitation about allowing the meetings to be broadcast online. Most of the concern was about whether the project was a wise use of tax money.
“The way that we presented it, that kind of helped them understand what it was that we were really proposing and why it was a good use of taxpayer dollars,” he said.
Initial set up costs for the livestream project was just less than $30,000, and annual maintenance is $11,000, according to Rohlf.
“That is not just for the video streaming of the meeting, but also the agendas, minutes integration with the meeting,” he said. “It’s a very comprehensive approach to doing the commission meeting. You’re not just watching the meeting on a video. It’s more than that. It’s an integration of the meeting and the agendas and minutes.”
Rohlf said this means citizens can go back through archives of recorded meetings to look for a specific item they may want more information about.
“You can click on the agenda item in the application, it’ll take you right to that point in the meeting,” he said. “You don’t have to sit through and watch the whole meeting to get to the part you are interested in.”
Two aspects of hardware are a part of the livestream set up, the first of which is an encoder.
“That is the video streaming part,” Rohlf said.
Next, some software had to be installed on one of the servers in the county’s technology room in the basement of the Administration Building.
“We already had a server in place for that, so we really didn’t have to purchase a server for that,” Rohlf said. “We just had to utilize one of our other servers.”
Rohlf said the encoder was purchased with part of the $29,000 initially used to get the project going.
“Audio and video were already in place because we were using the audio and video for the broadcast on the cable channel 15,” he said.
Rohlf said the new way of watching commission meetings will likewise be a help to county clerk employees, who take the minutes of the meeting, and the administrative assistant to the county administrator, who is responsible for putting together agenda packets.
“They get a lot of questions about what happened, and in the minutes, you can go and see what it was that was proposed and voted on and what the vote was,” he said. “You can’t really see anything else in the minutes. There’s no detail in the minutes. With the meeting being archived, that gives the citizen the ability to watch the meeting and see what was missing from the minutes.”
“The funding for this is in the county technology budget,” he said. “It’s an annual budgeted item. Technically, what the commissioners said is we’re going to use this first year as a trial period. If after that year they decide we don’t want to continue that, we’ll stop that, but assuming everyone’s happy with it, next year at this time, we will continue to budget for it and keep it running.”
Rohlf said citizens who want to check out the livestream and the minutes and agendas of previous meetings can simply click on a link on the front page of the county’s Web site.
“There are a couple of different links,” he said. “These first two links they’ll use. You click on the meeting webstream, and that shows you the meeting room. The camera’s always on. The audio is only on when the meeting’s on.”
Rohlf said the site also features a commission meeting tab, where people can go back and look at archived meetings.
“In this second link here, ‘Agendas & Minutes,’ this is where the current agenda for the next meeting will be viewable once it is ready to go,” he said as he gave a visual tour of the site. “All the supporting documents are available too.”
Rohlf said while livestreaming is a great benefit for citizens, county employees, such as those in the clerk’s office and the administrative assistant, will see advantages to the new tool as well.
“The administrative assistant is the person who puts the agenda together,” he said. “It makes her job a little bit easier. It makes the clerk’s job easier. They do the minutes.”
Rohlf also believes having meetings, minutes and agendas archived will help with disputes from citizens.
“I think it is a great place for the commissioners to be able to respond to a citizen who’s saying ‘You voted blah, blah, blah on this motion here,’” he said. “The commissioner can go ‘No, check the video. I voted this way.’ The way they voted will be available in the minutes, but any disputes on who said what or when in an open meeting, they can go right to the source.”