County Administrator Pete Rose speaks to both a live and video audience Thursday.
Friday, Sep 30 2011 - Video conferencing is making citizen access to government and management’s interaction with County employees easier and more cost effective in San Juan County.
On Thursday, County Administrator Pete Rose led two, 90-minute meetings with employees to discuss the County’s financial status and take questions. Though County employees gathered in five separate locations on the three islands where they work, Rose never left the County Legislative Building.
Thursday’s all-employee meeting was the largest trial so far of the County’s video conferencing capability, and Rose called it a success.
“We value interaction with our staff,” Rose said, “but the tough logistics have kept us from doing enough of it on an all-staff basis.”
Rose added that video conferencing the meeting saved both time and money. “We undoubtedly saved a couple of hundred employee-work hours because we didn’t have to transport dozens of people by ferry or boat, and we didn’t have to rent a meeting space that could hold the entire staff.”
San Juan County began looking seriously at video conferencing about four years ago, as a way to dealing with the challenge of communicating with staff and citizens in a community of islands. Given ferry schedules, a resident living on Lopez Island who wanted to offer five minutes of testimony at a Council hearing often had to spend more than a half day traveling and waiting for ferries.
Likewise, departments which wanted to have a full staff meeting had to curtail operations on other islands for almost an entire day, to accommodate travel schedules.
The County Council broke the ice in February 2010, using an inexpensive Internet video conferencing system to receive a staff report by Community Services Director Joyce Rupp from her office on Orcas. Though the quality of the video was low and the sound lagged more than a second behind the picture, the report and question and answer session were effective enough to encourage the staff to expand the process, seek a way to improve audio and video quality and connect with multiple sites. Cost was a deterrent.
At the time, the IT director estimated that, using existing technology, the cost of purchasing and installing the equipment required to do high quality video conferences from the Council Hearing Room in Friday Harbor would be approximately $20,000.
Subsequently, the County obtained a grant to acquire teleconferencing infrastructure for its Health Department. Citizen Walt Corbin of Olga helped put the final piece in place with a personal contribution which enabled the County to purchase a dedicated computer and new, affordable video-conferencing software for the Council Hearing Room.
The County Council gave the new video conference set up its first live test on September 20. Members of the public joined the Council meeting live from the public libraries on Orcas and Lopez Islands, participated in the public comment portion of the meeting, and testified during the public hearing on Council redistricting proposals.
Of Thursday’s five-location employee meeting, Rose said he felt that employees in all of the remote locations seemed comfortable in asking questions. “We could see and hear each other perhaps even better than if we were meeting in a large hall,” he said. “I just wish that I could have had better news about the budget to deliver.”