This Grand Strand town stopped airing meetings post-COVID. But will they start again?

·3 min read
Janet Blackmon Morgan/jblackmon@thesunnews.com

At a fiery May 16 North Myrtle Beach City Council meeting, several residents blasted manager Michael Mahaney — some demanding his resignation in the wake of an alleged assault days earlier.

But the only ones able to witness the drama were those sitting in the room at the time.

That’s because, unlike most of its surrounding communities, the city of nearly 17,000 stopped broadcasting its council meetings online once in-person capabilities resumed coming out of COVID protocols.

City spokesman Donald Graham said officials scrapped the digital feeds as soon as they were able due to “low viewership,” though the service may be returning.

“The city is currently researching methods to provide high-quality live streaming while working to minimize the cost to taxpayers,” Graham said in a statement to The Sun News. No timeline was given about when the technology could be in place.

And while South Carolina’s open meetings law doesn’t require communities to broadcast any of their deliberations, nearly all of North Myrtle Beach’s neighbors do it anyway: Conway, Myrtle Beach, Surfside Beach, the Horry County Council and Horry County Schools among them.

Myrtle Beach residents have been able to watch City Council meetings on TV since the mid-1990s, and online beginning in late 2018. Between the costs of streaming and equipment installation, it’s a roughly $55,000 investment to get meetings in cyberspace, city spokesman Mark Kruea said.

An upgrade to the city’s audio display system has already been approved but is on hold due a worldwide chip shortage.

“Last I heard, we may see that equipment in late August or early September. We can carry other meetings live, but the place to do that is in the Council Chamber, and we don’t have enough free time there to make that a reliable option,” Kruea said.

Meanwhile, Conway spent $40,000 in start-up costs to ensure its City Council meetings could be live streamed through the pandemic, but officials kept the technology even when members could be face-to-face again.

“We still limited our meetings to the public, and only had those from the public who wanted to speak about a matter on the agenda,” city spokeswoman June Wood said. “We continued using live streaming as a method for the public to have access.”

That option allowed almost 300 viewers to follow on Conway’s YouTube channel throughout April and May a controversial rezone request by Healthcare Partners of South Carolina and Dollar General that was eventually scrapped by city leaders, shelving a $25 million project.

Charlie Barrineau understands the dynamic better than most. Now a field services director at the Municipal Association of South Carolina, he spent almost a decade as city manager in Greenwood, an Upstate city of nearly 25,000.

“I do watch a number of meetings across the state that are streaming and I can’t hear, so I guess if a municipality was going down that road, we’d encourage them to do it well. And if you can’t, then it’s likely that you should not do it,” he said. “You need to be prepared for an additional person to monitor the stream. That’s just a reality of the effort.”