New law requires local government meetings to be put online

Access to the decisions of elected government officials is about to get easier as some counties, cities and school districts are now required by law to make video recordings of public meetings available online.

House Bill 283 was signed into law in June 2015 and became effective Jan. 1. It requires school districts with an enrollment of 10,000 students or more, municipalities with a population of 50,000 or more, and counties with a population of 125,000 to record audio and video of board, city council and commissioner court meetings and make these available online.

“One of the most important factors is transparency,” said Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg. “Most people don’t have the time to actually attend a meeting, therefore don’t have the benefit of knowing what transpired and what the results were until much later.”

Canales co-authored the bill and said it has the potential of forcing government officials to be more responsive to the public and temper their behavior that would otherwise go unnoticed when meetings are ill attended.

Even as costs can be of concern, Canales said the bill comes at a time where technology should make it easy to everybody to record and store videos.

“To some degree, technology has come to a point where cameras, data storage, web hosting has become extremely affordable,” he said. “This bill actually allows governmental bodies to actually post the videos on YouTube at no cost if they don’t have their own website.”

The bill states the videos can be made available on any existing internet site, including public video-sharing or social networking sites. The videos must be uploaded no later than seven days after each meeting and must be kept online for at least two years.

School districts like McAllen, Pharr-San Juan-Alamo, and Mission were already recording their school meetings, but only McAllen ISD made them available live and online anytime after the board meetings.

In Hidalgo County, the school districts that fit the bill’s description are Edinburg, McAllen, PSJA, La Joya, Donna, Sharyland, Mission and Weslaco. The municipalities include McAllen, Edinburg, Pharr and Mission. The county also fills the requirements, but its meetings are already being made available online.

McAllen spokesman Mark May, said the school district began airing the meetings through the district’s cable access channel more than 20 years ago, but it began posting them online August 2014.

Some of the cost to the school district to make the videos available is about $120 per meeting, including employee overtime. The school district holds two regular school meeting per month and both are recorded.

The city of McAllen also began recording and posting videos of the council meetings online about 15 years ago, said City Manager Roel Rodriguez. The most costly part of the service for the city has been storing the meetings, he said.

Roy Cantu, spokesman for the city of McAllen, said the city contracted the services of Granicus, a company that focuses on cloud services for government entities in the United States. The city pays about $10,000 annually for the company to capture, broadcast and store the videos, he said, and the initial investment on technology was $11,110.

“We send our video signal through a receiver and they capture it on their cloud and archive it for us,” Cantu explained in an email. “Our city secretary [department] handles time stamping the video to each item on the agenda.”

For Mission school district, the Google technology adopted years ago for curriculum, instruction and other needs also proved to be useful in this situation.

Starting November, the school district began looking for ways to comply with the law in a cost effective way, said Mission CISD spokesman Craig Verley. The district had already been using a simple video camera to record the meetings, but the videos were just kept for district records, so he said they decided to upload the videos to Google Drive and link it to the district’s website.

“We are hoping to be able to implement it in a way that won’t really cost the district anything in terms of additional equipment,” Verley said. “At least for now, [our Google infrastructure] gives us a way to start the implementation and, depending on how it works, it gives us time to see if there’s a better way to do it.”

Mission school district’s first regular meeting will be on Jan. 20, and the technology has already been set up to upload the video to the district’s page. The district plans to send notification to parents and other area residents letting them know this service is available, he said.

As cities and districts find their own way to comply with the new requirement, Canales said he hopes others will follow suit even if the law doesn’t apply to them.

“I think the bill might eventually expand to be more inclusive of smaller jurisdictions,” Canales said. “Those jurisdictions may not even meet legislation, they may follow suit just because they see everybody else doing it and it is a good idea… transparency at all levels is a good idea.”

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