Tuesday, September 23, 2014 · 12:25 p.m.
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The Chattanooga Municipal Building. (Photo: Staff)

Chattanooga—the self-proclaimed "Gig City"—boasts breakneck Internet speed and a smart grid to boot.

But when it comes to offering citizens a way to observe government meetings in real time, away from City Hall and commission chambers, Chattanooga lags.  

Both city and county government leaders commit themselves to a transparent and open government, posting documents, agendas, minutes and even MP3 recordings on their websites. 

Meetings, however, are scheduled at times that can be inconvenient—with the County Commission meeting at 9:30 a.m. midweek and the City Council holding regular meetings at 6 p.m.

Agenda sessions for the council—when the majority of debate and dialogue occurs—happen at 3 in the afternoon. 

Cities across the country, both smaller and larger than Chattanooga, are offering an online alternative for interested citizens who aren't able to attend meetings in person. They're using basic video streaming services, both live and on-demand. 

In Lebanon, Tenn., the small city uses a simple webcam and a UStream account to broadcast meetings to anyone who may be interested in watching—either in the city or anywhere with an Internet connection.

John Allison, who is management information systems director for Lebanon, said citizens are regularly tuning in to meetings online.  

"All we do is hook a regular little webcam up to the laptop and plug the laptop into our soundboard," he said. "The UStream producer is free—you only have to sit through 15 seconds of advertising to begin watching. Even in our podunk town of 21,000 residents, we've actually got some people who are watching it."

In Asheville, N.C., City Council meetings have been streaming live and online for three years.

Dawa Hitch, public information officer for Asheville, said the city budgets $2,500 a year to stream meetings live on the city's website, along with archiving them for on-demand viewing long after the meetings have taken place. Citizens  in Asheville are able to watch council meetings at their own convenience. 

Hitch said the city had received positive and useful feedback because of meetings being streamed online. 

"It's turned out to be a good match for our community," she said. "Based on feedback, we see a lot of people are making use of streaming. People get information in a lot of different ways, and meeting people where they're at drives our communications."

Other nearby cities and government entities that offer streaming services include Knoxville, Clarksville, Bristol, Oak Ridge, Smyrna and Nashville, as well as both chambers of the Tennessee General Assembly. 

Talk of implementing a streaming service for local meetings has come up before in Chattanooga, but the talk has proven fruitless.

Randy Burns, management analyst for Chattanooga, said the city wasn't posting recordings online because of "bandwidth" issues and added that other media outlets would often post portions or the entirety of meetings on their websites. 

"It has something to do with the bandwidth and the space," he said. "The recordings are also available in a couple other places."

Richard Beeland, spokesman for Mayor Ron Littlefield, said that City Council members had not been able to decide on a broadcast option that would be best for the city. Beeland said the last time council members discussed broadcasting meetings, through a partnership with WTCI, was approximately two years ago. 

"It's a council decision," Beeland said. "I think it's a good idea, and we've talked about it for years, but the council could never decide on the type of upgrade or what the costs would be."

City Council Chair Pam Ladd said the council had considered including funds for the broadcast of meetings in recent capital budgets, but the item always had been "chopped out."

Ladd said that a proposal to create a 24-hour public television channel that would have broadcasted meetings, along with other city-related shows and announcements, had been rejected because of expenses. 

"The council wouldn't buy into it," Ladd said. "My head wants to say it would have cost somewhere in the $750,000 range."

Hamilton County posts MP3 files of regular commission meetings and agenda sessions on a page of its website—but finding the page is difficult. In order to access the recordings, one must click through three pages—none of which say "audio recordings" or anything that would suggest audio of a meeting could be accessed. 

Michael Clark, commission records and archives specialist, said the files are left online for six months before being rotated out. 

Knowing how many citizens would take advantage of meetings streamed online is difficult to gauge, but there are at least a few locals who have been pushing for the idea through their own initiatives. Tim Moreland, who heads a small group of coders called Open Chattanooga, recently volunteered to stream a forum focusing on crime and public safety hosted by Mayor-elect Andy Berke. 

Moreland used a laptop, a microphone and an $80 webcam. 

"One of the main issues we're trying to address with Open Chattanooga is making information accessible to the public," Moreland said. "With a basic setup like ours, you could do it very cheaply. The government procurement process can be kind of onerous, so we want to showcase a more agile way of doing it."

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