It’s early on a Tuesday morning and the Dysart et al council chambers are unnaturally quiet for a regular meeting day.
With COVID-19, only mayor Andrea Roberts is in attendance, seated behind a conference camera and two computers. One screen is for the Zoom meeting she will chair starting at 9 a.m. The other is so she can have a copy of the agenda and its accompanying reports.
At a safe social distance are staff members Alyssa Sisson and Laurie Salvatore. Down the back of the room is IT technician Marc Jones.
While the meeting is still an hour away, it takes time to set up.
Jones is getting ready to start YouTube livestreaming. Sisson and Salvatore are ensuring councillors and staff are online and messaging delegates to make sure they are available to join the Zoom meeting for their part of the agenda.
County IT manager Mike March is lending support, telling Salvatore, “I disinfected my hands before I touched your keyboard.”
The County of Haliburton and its four lower-tier municipalities have been conducting Zoom meetings that are livestreamed to YouTube for months now because of COVID-19.
“We’ve adapted very well,” says Roberts as she removes her mask and takes a sip of coffee.
She said it had been a case of having to adapt on the fly, “or sink or swim.” And for the most part, she said it had been a success.
Jones said there have been the occasional technical problems. For example, the Aug. 27 Minden Hills meeting had to be rescheduled to Aug. 31. During an Algonquin Highlands meeting Aug. 24, Zoom was out for awhile. Jones had to find a “back door” to get in.
He said when the signal looks “wonky” to those watching, it’s usually on the Zoom end of things, not County internet. However, Roberts said some councillors have better internet than others.
As if on cue, Coun. Walt McKechnie enters the building to use a vacant meeting room since his home internet isn’t always reliable.
As for bloopers, Jones and March said there haven’t been many other than the odd dog barking or children running around in the background. Often councillors have to be reminded to unmute their microphones.
Roberts said the County gave councillors some tips, including that lighting and camera angles are important. Backgrounds matter. They were also advised to look professional, treating it as any other meeting.
March said running a Zoom meeting is a partnership between IT staff and the municipal clerk’s department. He said the clerk’s department will typically set up the Zoom meeting, ensure invitations are sent out to the appropriate parties, and will control the Zoom meeting once it begins.
The IT staff person is in charge of the camera equipment setup, ensuring the livestream is functioning properly for people at home, and providing general troubleshooting and technical support to council and staff.
In terms of equipment, March said very little is required. IT staff will usually bring a conference camera as well as their laptop for support, and municipal staff will use a computer that IT has set up for hosting Zoom meetings.
“Behind the scenes, before each meeting, IT will work with council and staff to ensure everyone’s video and audio are working optimally, and that the livestream is functioning properly,” he said. “After assisting with 25-30 virtual meetings, the process runs smoothly now. However, we still have the occasional lastminute scramble. Two minutes before going live seems to be when cameras want to stop working, or computer issues will disconnect council and staff,” he added.
The IT costs to run the meetings have been minimal, the County’s IT director said. The only new hardware that has been purchased were two conference cameras that, along with a third they had in stock already, they circulate among the County and four municipalities. The cost for those two cameras was about $900. Subscription costs for a primary and secondary host to run a Zoom webinar is about $140 per month.
“The municipalities have been wonderful to work with through this process,” March said. “Before the pandemic, very few in the clerk’s department had used a teleconferencing platform such as Zoom. Now those same staff are setting up public meetings, configuring YouTube livestreams, and working with IT to ensure the meetings run smoothly.
“If live-streaming becomes a permanent fixture then it’s likely IT and the clerk’s department will continue to work together to deliver virtual council meetings to the public.”