Eganville – Despite continuing complaints about the sound quality of meetings broadcast for the public via telephone, North Algona Wilberforce (NAW) council can’t justify spending $28,000 for a new audio system when a meeting only attracts an average of two telephone users.
When emergency measures for the COVID-19 pandemic were first introduced in March 2020, all municipalities suspended public access to council meetings based on strict guidelines of allowing a maximum of 10 people to attend the meetings. Like so many other organizations, NAW council meetings were held virtually with each participant calling in from their residence.
Residents were invited to call in using a dedicated phone number, but it became apparent the two-to-four bi-weekly users had great difficultly hearing what was being said, and at times the dialogue was impossible to decipher due to the poor quality of the audio feed. Even when councillors and staff returned to chambers to resume meetings and installed the “Owl” audio/visual system with improved software, the quality of the audio broadcast was poor.
CAO Andrew Sprunt provided council with a summary of options and what has been done to date to address the problem. He provided the $28,000 solution based on the audio system comparing it to the one used by the County of Renfrew during its monthly council meetings. He noted the $28,000 system was an option and he also suggested an in-house solution at a cost of $2,000 to see if that can provide higher quality.
“What we’ve done to date is the best that we can do,” he told council. “Right now we are sending a signal from your microphone, through a wire to an amplifier and through a speaker on the wall and beamed out. When we get our in-house system it is going from your speaker to a mixer and sending out as a digital system to a secure line and out.”
He also pointed out the new system recommended by the consultant will not address any audio issues at the receivers end with privately owned equipment. Further, the new system will only work correctly if all councillors always speak directly into the microphone at all times.
Councillor Janet Reiche-Schoenfeldt inquired about COVID funding in terms of upgrading the equipment.
“Is there not some way the COVID funding we are receiving from the province can be used to cover these expenses?” she asked. “If it were not for the COVID restrictions we wouldn’t have to be worrying about upgrading the sound system. I would rather see it paid that way instead of taking it out of reserves.”
Mr. Sprunt acknowledged some of the expenses could be covered through the COVID relief funding and that all potential sources of funding are being explored.
Councillor Maria Robinson suggested the in-house solution proposed by the CAO be utilized and if it is found not to provide better quality, then other solutions be explored, including the consultant’s $28,000 system.
Along with the poor audio quality, it was also pointed out the cost to install a toll-free line to allow persons to call in toll free would cost about $7 to $11 per participant per meeting. For a year it would amount in the neighbourhood of $200 or more per person.
Mayor James Brose said if only three users accessed the line on a regular basis it would be an additional $600 cost to the township over the course of a year. He added if there were some type of contentious issue that suddenly attracted 3,000 users over the course of a year, the costs would put severe financial strain on the municipality.
Councillor Reiche-Schoenfeldt was not in favour of the toll-free line and again brought the discussion back to COVID financing.
“Hopefully all of this will be over in a couple of years and we are all back here for meetings,” she said. “Then the whole thing is moot. I have to once again say that this is a COVID issue and we should find some way to get these expenses covered.”
Mayor Brose recommended the issue be deferred to staff and utilize the in-house solution and if it is not satisfactory, then staff bring back whatever solutions are available and council will make a decision at that time.
Council supported Mayor Brose’s suggestion and the in-house solution will be monitored.
Bruce McIntyre, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eganville Leader