story by Ryan Saylor
The city of Fort Smith will make the leap into the modern age in September with the launch of livestreams – video of event available via the Internet – of Board of Directors meetings.
Russell Gibson, director of Fort Smith's information technology department, said the plan for offering streams of regular meetings has been on his department's radar for the better part of a year, but has taken a back seat to other IT needs, such as the launch of the new My Fort Smith mobile phone app.
The challenge, Gibson said, has been working with infrastructure at the Fort Smith School District's school services center on Jenny Lind Road. City Board meetings are held at the site since the city does not have its own Board meeting room within a city-owned complex.
"You know, unfortunately since we don't have our own city hall or facilities, we have to work with other folks in terms of consuming their services," he explained. "We're fortunate that the school system's been very generous and helpful as far as meeting our technology needs, especially with the television broadcasts and now with the separate (project) we're going to undertake with the stream."
According to Gibson, the school district is allowing the city to use its Internet signal to stream the meetings.
"They are going to give us a drop there and we talked about using their WiFi signal. In talking to the school folks, they're actually going to let us plug right into their network. They've been very generous with their time and resources. And we'll use that infrastructure to get the signal up to the Internet."
For residents who do not subscribe to Cox Communications' cable service, where the Board meetings are broadcast live on the city's community access channel, the new livestream will be viewable on FortSmithAR.gov and on mobile devices.
The service used to broadcast the stream to the public will be UStream, Gibson said, explaining that tests of the streaming service will begin Sept. 2 before the official go-live date of Sept. 16.
Costs for the streaming service will likely be less than $1,000 annually, he added, with little in the way of staffing to manage the streaming service.
"Our hope is we'll enlist either one of the staff from 777 Productions (the company that produces city Board meeting broadcasts on cable) to simply hit 'Go Live' on the equipment and send the signal up that way, or perhaps (City Clerk) Sherri (Gard) or someone. Worst case, it would be a staff from ITS there for the duration of the meeting. Again, that's sort of the logistics testing part we're going to work out to make sure everyone's singing from the same hymn book, so to speak."
For residents unable to attend a meeting or watch it live online or on the community access channel on Cox, Gibson said videos of meetings are and will continue to be available on the city's website under the "Board of Directors" section.
As for special meetings or study sessions, there is a possibility of adding streams of those meetings, Gibson said, though he said it would likely be only after requested by the Board.
To do so, the IT department would utilize a webcam in order to broadcasts since it would not have broadcast-quality cameras now in use at regular Board meetings held at the Fort Smith school service center. Study sessions are typically held at the Fort Smith Public Library, though meetings are occasionally held at the Southside Senior Center and the Elm Grove Community Center.
"Yes, the possibility would exist (to add study sessions and other meetings in the future) if it's ever requested," Gibson said. "Of course, we work at the pleasure of the Board and administration, so if that request ever were to come or due to public demand, then obviously we want to be at the ready and not have to start from the beginning. That's why we're also going to test with a webcam (even though broadcast cameras will be used for regular city Board meetings)."
In the region, the only other city to livestream city council meetings is Fayetteville.