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Technology brings Council meetings into Island homes

New television cameras are some of the recent technology upgrades installed at City Hall. - Chad Coleman/Mercer Island Reporter
New television cameras are some of the recent technology upgrades installed at City Hall.
— image credit: Chad Coleman/Mercer Island Reporter

Observant Islanders might notice quite a bit of new technology inside City Hall, now that City Council meetings are televised on channel 21 and equipment has been added to assist city leaders in responding to emergencies.

Wi-Fi, new television cameras, a flat-screen television monitor and a document camera are all recent additions to City Hall. The city is also running a pilot program called “Mercer Island View,” on its new television station and plans to build an online archive of Council meetings on its Web page.

According to Communications Coordinator Joy Johnston, the majority of the upgrades are related to two things, televising Council meetings and helping the city respond to emergencies. Johnston said that the new television monitor in the Council Chambers, which is routinely used during Council meetings to show presentations, was actually installed to help city officials run their Emergency Operations Center from Council Chambers.

Mark Kaser, the city’s Information Systems administrator, said the Information and Geographic Services Team (IGS) in conjunction with the city’s emergency-preparedness coordinator determined after the December 2006 wind storm that city leaders needed access to more information during emergencies.

“During the storm, decision makers needed access to multiple sets of information simultaneously, such as the different incidents city staff were responding to,” Kaser explained. “At the time, there was only one screen in the Council Chambers. To solve this problem, we installed an additional screen to allow us to better inform and support those running the EOC.”

The purchase of the new monitor and installation cost the city about $3,800. Johnston said the new document camera, which cost the city about $5,500, enables city staff to present documentation to the Council during meetings that also shows up legibly at viewers’ homes on the television screen.

“It can also be used for non-broadcast purposes, such as displaying hard copy plans or charts on the large screen at board and commission meetings,” she said of the document camera’s many uses.

Most of the funds for the upgrades came from the local cable company more than a decade ago. According to city records, the city received $200,000 from Viacom, the predecessor cable provider to today’s Comcast, in 1995 for an education and government grant associated with a franchise renewal. The city spent half of those dollars installing transmission equipment, cameras and other electronics at the new Community Center at Mercer View. In March, the City Council approved spending $117,000 to complete the technology installation and broadcast the meetings, which cost about $250 each to air. Money left over from the grant, about $32,000, was used to fund the final broadcasting technology installations.

Mercer Island’s current City Hall was built in 1989, a decade after the city traded property it had in the Town Center for a 14-acre property that was owned by Farmer’s New World Life Insurance, which now occupies the former city land. However, the city soon traded the land a second time, handing it over to the school district. The city then bought the current site back after Island voters approved a levy to build a new city hall at the current site.

As for the Wi-Fi, or Mi-Fi as the city labeled the network, the city spent roughly $2,000 to get the system up and running and spends about $1,500 per year supporting the wireless networks at City Hall and the Community Center. According to Kaser, the demand for wireless from those obtaining city permits, attending public meetings or using the community center reached the point at which they finally put in the technology. Although there were some initial connectivity problems when the wireless program at City Hall was launched, Mi-Fi now provides Islanders with a fast and secure Internet connection.

“The Information and Geographic Services Team has been working on providing free Wi-Fi access in public facilities such as City Hall and the Community Center at Mercer View to better support the community while [it is] conducting business with the city,” Kaser said. “The demand for this access has grown in recent years as more and more people require access to online resources while they are going through the permitting process, attending a Council meeting, or participating in a program or meeting at the Community Center.”

Going digital with an online archive of Council meetings to supplement the current availability of Council agenda items and various other city documents made sense because more Islanders are turning to the Web for information, Johnston said. According to Johnston, the city’s Web site receives about 700 visitors a day and over 70,000 page views per month. In addition to the city’s Web page, there is the eGov Alliance project for which the city recently received high honors for its success.

The city wants to hear what viewers think of its pilot program, “Mercer Island View,” at www.mercergov.org.

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