When live streams fail during public meetings, who's left in the dark?
Ontario's Ombudsman is investigating municipal tech issues across the province
Questions on transparency are being raised after both a city committee and the Hamilton public school board had live streams crash, but continued to hold their meetings — which are supposed to be public — without any way for people to watch.
David Siegel, a retired professor of political science at Brock University, said the problems aren't envisioned in legislation allowing electronic meetings. And Ontario's Ombudsman says it's even reviewing cases involving virtual meetings across the province.
But continuing when the public doesn't have access, Siegel said, essentially makes it a private meeting.
"Once there's no live streaming, then that's no longer really an open meeting anymore," he said.
On Oct. 5, the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB) held a meeting where trustees could ask public health questions about the COVID-19 pandemic.
But the live stream failed, and the meeting minutes do not include any questions or answers, which means parents won't know exactly what was discussed.
On Oct. 21, the city's LGBTQ advisory committee, which normally streams on YouTube and the city's website, also cut out about one hour in due to VPN issues.
There are no video recordings of either meeting.
When a group arranges for live streaming, Siegel said, one could argue they're doing what they can to make the meeting public.
So having a glitch, he said, is like having people gather for an in-person council meeting, but the lights go out.
The meeting wouldn't move to a different place, he explained. It would pause until the lights were turned back on again.
"You wouldn't try to continue that meeting. You would realize that you could only have that meeting in a council chamber with public present," he said.
"I think that's probably the thing to do … to halt the meeting temporarily until you figured out what the problem with the live streaming was, because at that point, you no longer have a public meeting."
It begs the question: what is the plan if this happens again, especially if there is crucial information or decisions being made without the public able to follow along?
HWDSB spokesperson Shawn McKillop said if the live stream doesn't work again and trustees are continuing to call-in, the conference call line will be disconnected. Participants will be asked to call back in and the conference call will be recorded.
A city spokesperson said that since the live stream failed, the IT and clerks divisions have issued advice to meeting hosts to prevent it from happening again.
Along with advice on technology, hosts were told that if a meeting is interrupted and cannot proceed with its live feed, it must be recessed for up to 15 minutes, or until the stream is resumed. If it can't be restarted within those 15 minutes, it will be considered adjourned, and the committee will meet at the next regularly scheduled meeting date.
Digital meetings in review across province
Ontario's Ombudsman is aware that municipalities have had issues with virtual meetings and technology, said its director of communications. There are even some cases under review.
There has been one report issued after the start of the province's COVID-19 state of emergency that investigated a virtual meeting.
In the report, ombudsman Paul Dubé said municipalities should do "as much as possible to facilitate access by the public to any meetings held electronically during a declaration of emergency."
"The requirement to hold meetings that are open to the public is not suspended in an emergency. I encourage municipalities to continue to strive to carry out their business in as transparent and open a manner as possible while protecting public health and safety," he wrote.
One consideration, Siegel noted, is whether the group in charge of streaming can even tell if it's still working properly. That's why he recommends that everything be recorded.
He expects this type of instance to be covered in future revisions so people know what's expected, especially when it comes to crucial moments.
"If you were in the middle of some time-sensitive debate … and you needed to have decisions made by a certain time, I don't know what would happen," he said.
Ontario's Municipal Act, 2020 allows municipalities to hold electronic meetings during emergencies. The Education Act applies to school boards.
When asked to comment if holding the meeting offline was a violation of people's democratic rights, the mayor's office pointed CBC Hamilton back to its previous response.
McKillop noted the board is obligated to have accessible meetings to the public as per the Education Act. He added that the public can contact trustee officer Heather Miller for any questions related to the board meeting, and if it relates to the public health, the board will contact them for a response.