Is city ready for prime time?

The Port Orchard City Council is considering the possibility of televising council meetings in the near future.

BKAT, Kitsap County’s public access channel, has offered to tape and broadcast the council’s twice-monthly meetings, with the option of expanding coverage at some future time. Although city officials designed the council chambers’ media system with the intention of one day taping and broadcasting meetings, this is the first time the subject has been formally broached to the council.

“We really want the City of Port Orchard to be on our channel and bring the government to the people,” said BKAT Public Access Manager Charleen Burnette. “That’s what we’re all about — getting information to the people.”

BKAT’s services are costly, though. Right now, the city pays a South Kitsap High School student $25 a night to run the chambers’ audio-visual equipment, which broadcasts exhibits and images of speakers though the chambers’ closed-circuit television system.

For BKAT technicians to tape the meeting using the city’s equipment, add the necessary intro and closing credits, and broadcast the tape twice on BKAT’s cable channel would cost an estimated $7,500 a year. That estimate is based on BKAT’s hourly fee of approximately $57 and the assumption the average council meeting lasts about two and a half hours.

BKAT currently reaches 50,000 homes in Kitsap County.

Although $7,500 a year is not beyond the city’s means, Councilman John Clauson, who chairs the telecommunications committee, said it could come down to a question of priorities.

“Monies are becoming tight for cities,” he said. “Would the council want to fund television broadcasting over $7,500 of sidewalk replacement? That’s something I can’t answer — we’ve got to sit down and look at total needs.”

Equipment may also be an issue.

Although Burnette was confident BKAT could do a broadcast using the city’s existing equipment, Clauson pointed out the four cameras now in use are not really set up in the most efficient way.

The camera over the podium, he said, is not quite sharp enough to relay a clear image of all documents, particularly those with small print. The camera in the rear of the room, which offers a panoramic view of the council, is in a fixed-position — it can neither zoom in on an individual speaker’s face nor can it pan to pick up individuals outside the frame.

City staff said those limitations could make a televised council meeting hard for home viewers to follow — they wouldn’t know who was speaking and would have a hard time understanding complex presentations.

“There’d have to be improvements done before (televising) could be done,” said City Engineer Larry Curles. “We always figured, if you’re going to have TV, you should be able to zoom in on the speaker.”

One option is to buy a sharper-lensed camera for the podium and move the current podium camera to the back of the room. That, however, is a solution unlikely to be tackled in the near future — Clauson said estimates for a new podium camera have been around $10,000.

There is also speculation camera-shyness may be a factor in the council’s final decision. BKAT currently broadcasts Bremerton’s and Poulsbo’s city council meetings, as well as the Kitsap County Board of Commissioners’ meetings. Burnette said people have, in the past, expressed anxiety over being on camera.

Conversely, she said some speakers went out of their way to be long-winded so as to gain more time on-screen.

“That’s what a lot of cities have balked at — they don’t want to be on TV,” Burnette said.

Bainbridge Island’s city council meetings are also televised, but the contract is handled by the island’s own public-access channel.

Poulsbo was the latest to hit the airwaves — it signed up in 2001. Karol Jones, the Poulsbo City Clerk, said they have thus far had success with televising their meetings and have re-signed for 2002.

“The council seems to be very happy with the decision,” Jones said. “We don’t have a big crowd at our council meetings, so the council is hoping people watch it on TV.”

The Port Orchard City Council telecommunications committee is currently discussing the idea, but hasn’t yet decided whether to support or reject it. Following the committee’s recommendation, the council could either make a decision or opt to wait and see what happens in the upcoming budget cycle. However, should the council opt to retain BKAT’s services, taping could start as soon as the next council meeting.

“It’s as simple as the BKAT folks showing up,” Clauson said.

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