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Thursday, January 9, 2014

Glitches in Charlestown’s video system for town meetings

ClerkBase problems again hamper people's right to know
IN THIS ARTICLE: a backdoor, temporary fix
By Will Collette

Charlestown, like an increasing number of municipalities, puts many of its important town government meetings on-line through a popular system called ClerkBase. Even though it isn't cheap, it makes it possible for citizens to watch live proceedings and, later, to see these proceedings again and again in a video archive.

ClerkBase charges $8,475 a year to broadcast Town Council meetings and another $5,270 a year to carry Planning Commission meetings. Zoning Board of Review meetings are also broadcast on ClerkBase, probably at close to the same cost as the Planning Commission coverage. If my estimate is right on the Zoning Board, that’s about $20,000 a year and worth it, if the system works the way it’s supposed to.

ClerkBase is a wonderful tool when it works, but it can be very frustrating, too. When it first was installed under former and much missed Town Clerk Jodi LaCroix, there were few glitches and you could count on being able to see the meeting live while it was happening and then an indexed video of the meeting the following morning.

However, these days, you’re lucky if you can even get access. For many of you who use Internet Explorer or Google Chrome, when you try to view ClerkBase video these days, you’ll probably get this error message:

Internet Explorer, Google Chrome - an "Unknown browser type???"
But if you click on the link to download the plug-in (something some computer security-conscious people are very reluctant to do), this is what you might get:

I’ve also tried to get onto Clerkbase via Google Chrome and got the same initial error message. When I clicked on the plug-in link, it sent me to the Mozilla browser website with equally useless results.

I reported this problem to Town Tax Assessor Ken Swain, who is for inexplicable reasons also serving as the Town’s Information Tech guy, for which he is paid extra, even though he has no formal training. In an exchange of e-mails, Swain concluded that the problem was due to Internet Explorer and made a suggestion….

Very true statement: "an obvious problem"

Going back to an old version of Internet Explorer didn’t seem to me like a very good option, nor is it an answer to the access problems on Google Chrome, so I pressed for a better solution.

Eventually, Swain suggested I take a backdoor approach to getting onto Clerkbase. Here’s the backdoor route, which actually does work when you use Internet Explorer as your internet browser:

 The “HERE” he is referring to is the link at the top of the page if you are looking at the page for a Planning Commission meeting – they don’t seem to want to index their meetings anymore so you have to watch the entire meeting – or the triangular icon that appears throughout the page for a Town Council meeting that takes you to a specific, indexed section of the meeting.

As I said, this backdoor route does work, but is not a practical solution, given that we pay around $20,000 to give citizens – all citizens, whether or not they are computer geeks, or whether or not they have the backdoor key – the ability to see our town government at work.

The other problem with the “fix” is that it is not a permanent fix. Each and every time you want to access a ClerkBase video, you have to use the backdoor.

The other problem with the “fix” is that it is not a permanent fix. Each and every time you want to access a ClerkBase video, you have to use the backdoor even though I am told the “fix” should be a permanent fix. My experience is that it is not.

I polled my Progressive Charlestown colleagues and all but Tom Ferrio, could not get onto ClerkBase from their computers using their usual internet browsers. Tom, who as a retired former vice-president for Texas Instruments, is a bona fide computer genius. I would rate my own computer tech skills at “modest” to “average,” probably on par with the average Charlestown resident.

Jodi on the job at her new Tennessee gig
I checked with former Charlestown Town Clerk Jodi LaCroix who is now City Recorder for Lakesite, Tennessee. She told me she could get onto Charlesown's ClerkBase using Mozilla’s Firefox browser. But then Jodi is an expert at Charlestown's ClerkBase system.

She described the solution of either re-installing an older version of Internet Explorer or using the “fix” every time you want to use ClerkBase as “totally unacceptable.”

But there it is.

This is not the first time there have been problems with the town’s ClerkBase system since Jodi retired from Charlestown. Click here and here and here for examples.

If you check the ClerkBase listing for Planning Commission meetings, you’ll find several meetings where there is no ClerkBase coverage at all. I was told by the Town that someone on the Planning Commission kept stepping on a cable and disconnecting the system.

For a number of months, the Planning Commission has not indexed its video where (presuming you can get on the system), you can’t go to specific sections of the meeting, but instead must listen to all of their three-hour plus meetings to hear what you want to hear.

Jodi tells me that indexing is simple: “If I remember correctly, the clerk...taking the minutes of the meeting just “clicks the mouse” at each new section. That is not difficult to do.”

In Charlestown, it's not that you have the right to know, but the town's
determination of whether you NEED to know
The Town needs to fix these problems and soon. Otherwise, we’re wasting a good tool and the $20,000 a year we pay for it. 

If Ken Swain can’t fix these problems, and presumably do his other job as Town Tax Assessor, maybe our cheapskate Town needs to hire a real information technology specialist. So much of our Town’s business relies on efficient, reliable computer systems. This job could also be contracted out to an on-call professional.

In the short-term, I suggested to Ken, with a cc to Town Administrator Mark Stankiewicz, that now might be a good time to re-introduce the town to the ClerkBase system, if only to boost viewership. 

It’s really the Town’s job, not mine through Progressive Charlestown, to inform the Town about the current Clerkbase problem and the backdoor fix.

The town has a website, plus it has the periodic mailer, The Pipeline, it could use to advertise ClerkBase and give residents some practical solutions to the access problems. They could also let the Westerly Sun know since this problem is a worthy subject for Sun coverage.

You'll find this on their website by clicking here. Compare their
claim to the reality.
All of these should be intuitive solutions for our CCA Party Town leaders who all pledged their oaths to transparent, effective and professional government. You would think they would want to prevent further damage to their already tarnished history on transparent government.

Why does it fall to someone like me, their proclaimed enemy, to be coming up with this?

But let’s get it done because the people have the right to know. We'll see if this gets fixed before the Town Council's monthly regular meeting on Monday night.