2011-07-07 / Front Page

Council delays vote on video streaming

By Phil Zahodiakin

The Town Council this week delayed its long-awaited decision on a vendor to record its meetings and possibly “broadcast” them over the Internet. It seemed like the councilors were poised to vote on two choices: a town-managed system, which would cost an appreciable sum of money to set up, or a system integrated with an existing service that would be free of charge to the town. But a vote was not to be.

The council, which met on July 5, also discussed the status of the wind turbine proposal for Taylor Point, which has been in limbo for almost the same amount of time as the video streaming proposal.

Town Administrator Bruce Keiser provided the council with a breakout of the costs projected by one of the respondents to the town’s request for hardware and software proposals, which was issued in March. The free video recording has been offered by Sav Rebecchi, owner of the Jamestown Record website, who did not submit a formal bid because he had told the council that the town could use his company’s services for free.

In May, Rebecchi responded to a request from the town administrator to meet with the town’s technical director to provide details about the services his company would pro- vide.

Specifically, Rebecchi has offered to provide the town with full, unedited recordings that would be uploaded from his server and embedded in a webpage created by the town for its home page. Rebecchi has also offered to provide the town with DVDs of every recorded council meeting for the town’s archival purposes, which Rebecchi says he has already been doing free of charge.

Keiser’s breakout for Rebecchi’s offer notes an annual $400 cost for “operations,” but that expense would be for website work by town employees. The breakout also says that there would also be a $1,875 cost for a bandwidth increase to accommodate live video streaming, although Rebecchi says his recent tests indicate a bandwidth increase may not be needed.

During the council’s May 16 meeting, Keiser reported that there were two responses to the request for hardware proposals: one for $21,569 and one for $28,171. The request for software proposals brought in four bids ranging from $3,200 to $6,100 per year.

The breakout presents the numbers from, but does not identify, the lowest bidder for hardware and software: ATR. Its first-year start-up expenditures, which includes $14,000 for a pair of cameras, total $25,015. The breakout also notes that there will be an annual $6,465 cost for such expenses as the video streaming service and a videographer.

The town has amassed $75,000 in state contributions for technological enhancements to the clerk’s office, and the state kicks in an additional $10,000 every year. “We do want to save money,” said councilor Mike White, “but we have $75,000 designated for [enhancing recording capabilities] and $10,000 a year for the foreseeable future, so all the costs are covered, and I’m a little uncomfortable with not having our own cameras if the town relied on Rebecchi’s company.”

Councilor Bob Bowen noted that the ATR system would use two cameras instead of one, and that those two cameras would provide high definition video. Alluding to the benefit of a second camera, which could capture someone addressing the council from a frontal perspective, and referring back to White’s observation, councilor Ellen Winsor said, “These are hard economic times, and just because we have $75,000 doesn’t mean we should spend it so we can see someone from the front instead of the back. [Rebecchi’s offer] is free.”

White replied, “Not spending money doesn’t put people to work,” to which Winsor said, “There are other ways to hire people [with the available money], like hiring an archivist. It’s not an either/or situation.”

Referring to other features of the service offered by ATR, Bowen said that its $25,000 start-up cost includes a touch-sensitive camera controller “that could sit beside [the town clerk]” – who, he added, could direct the camera coverage from her seat.

Keiser, however, said he was skeptical that the clerk could pay attention to camera controls while simultaneously typing up the notes for an official record of a council meeting. Rebecchi, who was present to record the meeting for his website, addressed the council in response to the high-definition issue, among others.

“I could capture you in high definition but the recording still has to be compressed – especially if it’s a long meeting – in order to [deliver] the recording efficiently to a personal computer,” Rebecchi said. “So, having the highest quality camera won’t change the end result.” He added that the drawbacks of a single camera could be solved by repositioning the podium off to the side.

Rebecchi said that the $1,875 line item for bandwidth expansion is not applicable because, he said, “The videos would be delivered from my servers. They may think they have to increase the town’s bandwidth to deliver the video streams to my servers during a live broadcast. But, a live video feed of Sen. Jack Reed speaking at the library went just fine without any need for increasing bandwidth.”

Referring to the single-camera issue, Rebecchi said, “Surveys have shown that when multiple cameras are used and switched between views, even though it’s a single recording, viewers become suspicious about the possibility of editing being done.”

Ultimately, however, a majority of the councilors decided to shelve a decision on a service provider until they examine the actual hardware and software bids, and a legal question is answered. “I’d like to see the bids,” said council President Mike Schnack, adding that he also wants assurances that the video records would be “safe and secure” if they were held in a company’s servers.

The legal questions involve the suitability of video records to meet the state standard for written records of council meetings – along with their admissibility in a court proceeding. The questions will be forwarded to Town Solicitor Peter Ruggiero.

Currently, the future of the town’s proposed Taylor Point wind turbine is about as clear as its eventual verdict on video streaming. At this point, all that is known for sure is that the town will not receive its $750,000 federal award because the Department of Energy wants documented assurances that Jamestown will have its turbine built by March 31, 2012, which, at this point, is impossible to guarantee.

Keiser said that the Office of Energy Resources remains “very supportive” of the project to the tune of a $500,000 Economic Development Corporation grant. Keiser added, however, that “they would have to know the size of the turbine” before committing to the full grant. If the town decides to build a wind turbine smaller than the proposed 1.65-megawatt turbine, then the state’s contribution would be smaller, Keiser said.

The size of the turbine will hinge on the estimated cost of local-grid improvements to accommodate the surge of power from the turbine. National Grid has still not submitted its estimate, which will itself cause controversy if the number is extremely high.

Keiser said that another state agency expressing an interest in the project is the Rhode Island Bridge and Turnpike Authority, which “sent a letter asking about the project in June,” Keiser said. “The letter indicated that the [RIBTA] board is following the project very closely, and they came forward with a concern about the aesthetics of the turbine and its set-backs, which we’re also concerned about.”

Although the authority had once expressed an interest in building its own turbine near the toll booth, Keiser said that the agency has since “returned to the Energy Offi ce all of the money that OER had given the authority for a feasibility study [on a turbine of its own] and told them to use the money for the Jamestown project.”

Resident Blake Dickinson, who has long opposed the turbine proposal, acknowledged that the referendum for a multi-million dollar bond to finance the turbine was narrowly passed by the voters and said that it raised some additional arguments, including the ownership of the company that would install and service the turbine.

Earlier, another resident asked if that company, Alteris, had been sold to a Colorado company. Keiser said he had just learned that the sale had taken place, adding, “All contracts and obligations would continue under its new ownership.” However, referring to the sale, Dickinson said Portsmouth “went through the same thing and now they’re having signifi cant maintenance and warranty issues.”

It still isn’t known when National Grid will submit its cost estimate for power line upgrades.

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