As counties return to in-person meetings, some drop remote viewing options
The Bergen County Commissioners meet via Zoom on June 16, 2021. (Courtesy of Bergen County)
More than 18 months into the pandemic, county commissioner boards in most New Jersey counties have returned to holding in-person meetings, and a third have ended livestreaming operations that were hailed for expanding access to government.
Just five counties — Camden, Essex, Union, Middlesex, and Cumberland — are still meeting remotely. Half of the remaining 16 counties haven’t maintained virtual components used for much of the pandemic, and some have no plan to bring their livestreams back.
Some county officials say they want to maintain remote viewing options, but technical issues post a challenge.
Henal Patel, director of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice’s Democracy and Justice Program, said live-streamed meetings helped more residents keep tabs on county governments and should remain an option.
“County governments, they’re already free of some of the scrutiny other parts of our government already receive,” Patel said. “To have this added back that they could hold meetings where they can cut out the public in a lot of ways just makes it more likely they’re doing things in backrooms.”
Commissioners in Burlington and Mercer are meeting in person and are both attempting to set up livestreams but are without them for the moment.
“We thought that upon returning to in-person meetings that we would be able to livestream from our chambers, but that was not the case,” Mercer County Commission Chairman Samuel Frisby said. “The building that our chambers are housed in is a very old structure with very dense walls and poor reception.”
The county’s information technology staff is working to start a hybrid meeting model, Frisby said.
In Burlington, the story’s the same. Officials are working to erect a livestream, but technical challenges mean they might be stuck posting video recordings of meetings online after the fact, a system already employed in several other counties, said David Levinsky, a county spokesman.
The move toward a hybrid model isn’t universal.
Hudson County Commissioners returned for their first in-person meetings in roughly nine months last week. Commissioners meet in a small room with limited seating for the public and do not provide any remote viewing option.
While there are scattered talks about re-introducing virtual viewing in Hudson, something the county did not have before the pandemic, none of the commissioners are pushing for livestreamed meetings, according to Hudson County Commissioner Chairman Anthony Vainieri.
“I wouldn’t mind. I really don’t care,” Vainieri said. “If they can do it, do it. It doesn’t bother me.”
The move away from livestreams seen in Burlington, Mercer, Hudson, Hunterdon, Gloucester, Monmouth, Sussex, and Ocean is a source of frustration for open-government advocates. Ocean commissioners met in person throughout the pandemic and did not broadcast their meetings.
The loss of accessibility that comes with a move back to meetings held solely in person has a disproportionate impact, according to Patel.
Residents with disabilities and those without means of transportation — a group that spiked in size after devastating floods brought by the remnants of Hurricane Ida — are among the likeliest to be impacted, but parents also face challenges to access.
Inaccessibility issues are greater in counties like Monmouth and Ocean, where meetings are held during traditional working hours, in the early and mid-afternoon.
“The public has a right to know what’s happening in meetings from their elected officials,” Patel said. “A fundamental part of democracy is you need transparency and accountability, and there should be records of it, easily accessible ones. You should be able to stream these meetings — always.”
All counties are required by law to make audio recordings of meetings available, though they are only released in response to Open Public Records Act requests in some counties, like Gloucester. That’s a small hurdle for reporters and advocates, but it represents a greater one for residents who are far less likely to be familiar with OPRA. Some think it’s time for the law to require livestreams.
“A lot of these laws were passed before we had the same accessibility options that we do now, but we are living in the age of Zoom, and our laws should accommodate that,” Patel said. “At the same time, as I’ve said, elected officials shouldn’t wait to do what’s required by the law only.”
All sides acknowledge there are benefits to in-person meetings, including greater and more personal oversight over lawmakers brought by direct interactions. But there are also more intangible matters, like the feelings of disconnection that plagued some staffers when the Legislature conducted its voting sessions via teleconference.
“I think you lose something when you do these hybrid events,” said John Donnadio, executive director of the New Jersey Association of Counties. “Video conferencing and livestreaming has been a very good tool during COVID, but at some point, I think you lose the genuineness of in-person events.”
Cost barriers are a factor too. While livestreaming has become increasingly simple as the format extends away from niche websites to mainstream platforms like YouTube and Facebook, some equipment is still required, plus personnel to operate the video feeds.
Salem County — which has a population of 62,000, roughly equal to that of Old Bridge — is one of eight counties to host in-person meetings that are broadcast online, but some of its recent meetings have not been streamed because of staffing shortages.
Larger counties face an easier time. In Bergen County, meeting livestreams predate the pandemic and use technology that integrates county’s legislative system.
“I don’t know that some of the smaller counties could afford to do that,” said Bergen commissioner spokesman Michael Sheinfield, who was instrumental in standing up the county’s broadcasting operation.
The integration has led to some cost savings through reducing paper use, Sheinfield said, but the extent of those savings is unclear, and transparency remains the clearest argument in favor of remote meeting options.
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