San Diego is planning sweeping technology upgrades to its City Council chambers that will boost public participation and solve some problems caused by the shift to virtual meetings during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The long-planned upgrades weren’t prompted by the pandemic or police protesters flooding council meetings with phone calls in recent weeks, but city officials say recent events have prompted them to tweak some details of their plans.
The renovations will include new lighting, a new sound system, modernized video displays and an upgraded voting system for the council.
Members of the public also will have more freedom to show their own slides or photos during testimony.
Other potential changes may include creating a virtual “green room” for people giving call-in testimony, to streamline the process, and a countdown clock so people watching the meetings know when a speaker will be done testifying.
During the pandemic many residents have struggled with exactly when during a council meeting to call in with their testimony, while others create long delays in meetings when they must be told multiple times that it’s their turn to talk.
Details of the renovations, which are scheduled to begin in August, won’t be finalized until city officials complete the process of evaluating responses they received in early June to a “request for qualifications” for the project.
City Clerk Elizabeth Maland, who is spearheading the renovations, said the goal is to make it easier for the public to participate in meetings and interact with their elected leaders in robust ways.
“It’s really focused on access to the government,” she said by phone this week. “It’s about what the next step is in the interaction between the public and the government.”
Maland said she began exploring potential upgrades shortly after the company that installed the current voting and video system went out of business in 2016.
Since then, city officials have struggled at times to keep the system working well.
“We have been able to keep the system functional, but it is limited,” said Maland, noting that it was installed in 2005.
The previous system was even less advanced, using green and red lights to represent council “yes” and “no” votes. The system in use since 2005 has video screens for testimony and votes of yes or no appear next to the names of each council member.
The planned upgrade this summer would allow members of the public to bring videos, charts or other items, and present them spontaneously during their testimony. Now those items must be submitted to Maland in advance.
Closed captioning of the meeting, which is now available only on a screen in the rear of the council chambers, would become available on a screen in the front of the chambers so it can be seen by people watching the meeting in person.
The upgrades would also include new headphones for people who are hearing-impaired, Maland said.
The renovations include a new lighting and a new sound system, said Alex Handy, who leads the city’s efforts to broadcast the meetings on the Internet and cable TV.
The existing lighting and sound system date back to 1997, when San Diego began broadcasting its council meetings for the first time. Handy said the new sound system would eliminate the occasional dead microphones and feedback now present during some meetings.
Money for the renovations, which are estimated to cost $250,000, will come from contributions by cable TV companies called public, educational, and governmental access channel fees.
In addition to paying the city 5 percent of subscriber revenue as a “franchise fee,” cable operators pay 1 percent more to support broadcasts of government meetings.
Maland said she expects city officials to choose a vendor and finalize project details in early July. While the goal is to conclude the renovations during the council’s August recess, Maland said some of the work might be delayed until December.