Aleppo ‘ahead of the curve’ on streaming meetings

Tuesday, August 6, 2019 | 6:00 AM

Matthew Doebler has a favorite quote, coined by renowned law professor Lawrence Lessig: “Information wants to be free.”

As an Aleppo Township commissioner, Doebler pioneered an effort to enhance government accountability by live-streaming commissioners meetings and making the video accessible to residents. He said any government official who can use social media and watch videos online can be trained to do the same.

With the growing popularity of video, “meetings will be recorded and digested at some point in the next 10 years. (Governments) can either get ahead of the curve and read about it or be behind the curve,” Doebler said.

Aleppo got ahead of the curve about five years ago by investing in a webcam, inexpensive computer and a microphone for about $380. The township has since upgraded equipment by purchasing a sound board and streaming software with mixing capabilities.

“Our system is really two systems meshed together. The first is the recording. The meetings are streamed live onto YouTube, and they live on YouTube. The second part (is) the digests,” Doebler said.

After each meeting, the township secretary spends about three hours reviewing the video and compiling an email digest. Each digest, sent to residents with the help of Mailchimp software, contains a bullet-point summary of the meeting and links to important discussion topics in the video.

Doebler has even created a guide about implementing this accountability initiative and presented his ideas to the Quaker Valley Council of Governments, Western Pennsylvania Association of Township Commissioners and Sewickley Borough. Many individuals have expressed interest, but Doebler said no one is coordinating a larger effort to encourage implementation.

“Sewickley Borough Council had discussed and the council is not interested at this time. We are fortunate that we have a good attendance for our meetings. Our facility is accessible to everyone if they would like to attend,” Sewickley council President Jeff Neff said.

Although Doebler resigned as a commissioner after moving to Glen Osborne earlier this summer, Aleppo Township Manager Gwen Patterson said she will continue the initiative he started.

“I wanted it to continue even though Matt’s not here because I think that the community really appreciates being informed and just knowing what their elected officials are doing. And I think it has definitely been a benefit to the residents,” Patterson said.

Aleppo hired the Wexford-based company BxVideo, which specializes in streaming, to help with its recording equipment. According to Carolyn Dietrich, who works in customer service for the company, Aleppo isn’t the only local government that has expressed interest in streaming meetings. She said three other townships in the region have recently inquired about video streaming, although she declined to provide their names.

These townships are in the process of updating the audio-visual equipment in their meeting rooms. Having a good stream, she said, requires microphones that can capture quality audio from anyone who might speak.

Aleppo’s system “seems to be getting a lot of really great feedback from their constituents, and they’re happy that they did it,” Dietrich added.

Aleppo has its own YouTube account, where employees post videos of each meeting. The township has used its recording equipment to post educational content about recycling and common fraud schemes.

Doebler said local governments need to produce an email digest if they want people to really pay attention.

“The same people who won’t sit through an hour-long meeting won’t sit through an hour-long meeting on YouTube,” he said.

Over time, Doebler said that many people who doubted his initiative have become supporters. Some had reservations about inviting disputes by recording entire meetings. But Doebler pointed out that disputes exist whether people are aware of them or not.

“If you don’t publicize them, then you’re just dealing with them in the shadows,” he said.

Patterson said the live stream and digest format has allowed the public to understand not only the decisions made, but also the process involved.

“I think at first … some people are just reluctant to be on video in general. And I think in the beginning there was a worry that it might stifle some conversation,” she said. “But in the end, it was a benefit because it allowed the public to see the actual conversations that took place and understand why decisions were made, rather than just knowing what decisions were made.”