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Muted meetings mean mistakes may materialize

Like all firearms are loaded, all microphones are live.

LAKELAND - Judges and lawyers are used to the signs.

"All microphones are live." The words can be seen on placards inside the Bonnyville, St. Paul and Lac La Biche Provincial courtrooms. Much like the cautious assumption that all firearms are loaded, the warning serves to remind people to be careful about how they conduct themselves around a microphone.

But not everyone has had the practice or experience of working with the idea that their words could be carried to places they weren't expecting. And with the increase of Zoom virtual meetings, Microsoft Teams and other online conversation tools in the wake of the global pandemic protocols that have disrupted in-person conversations, accidents can happen.

A St. Albert city council member was recently recorded making an inappropriate comment about a presenter during a online-streaming council meeting. And across the world, there are many examples of virtual meetings turned upside-down due to mute-button incidents.

As Lac La Biche County councillors enter their summer recess after switching to virtual meetings for the past two months, municipal officials say technology training is part of the new-normal. Each of the nine elected officials have a microphone at their seat, which they have been manually switching on and off each time they make statements during council meetings. Prior to the online meetings, the microphones amplified their voices to the in-room speakers for anyone attending the council meetings at McArthur Place. Since the COVID-caused addition of online meetings, the microphones can send that audio world-wide. 

In the first two months of the virtual meetings, there have been incidents where a councillor has forgotten to turn on the microphones, leaving any viewers of the virtual meetings to watch something more like a mime until the speaker is reminded to turn on their audio. At other times, microphones have been left on, recording background noise that might not be relevant to the meeting.

Learning lessons

Lac La Biche County Mayor Omer Moghrabi says it's a learning curve.

"I think it's called training in the field, training as you go," joked the mayor, who regularly states his challenges with new Information technology, and says a lot of the mistakes that make headlines around the world are innocent human reactions. "You see a lot of the slip-ups on the Internet, on the news — but mostly it's just normal people who are elected officials who were forced to get into IT immediately."

To help avoid council members in Lac La Biche County being overheard during private conversations during breaks or outside of regular council meeting business, the mayor now has a 'master switch' at his council chair that turns on microphones around the room — and turns them off. The switch also comes with an audible bell tone to signify that all the microphones are live.

In addition, the council's legislative services staff are also working behind the scenes of virtual meetings, making sure that session breaks are muted and microphones are transmitting when a council member is speaking.

Lac La Biche County's manager of communications Jihad Moghrabi said staff are very careful to maintain and protect privacy during meetings. As council does meet privately to discuss sensitive matters relating to legal matters, land transactions or personnel, the communications manager said the closed sessions are not part of the regular meeting coverage.

"Those sides of the meetings don't get streamed," he said.

Municipal administrators say they have adapted to the quick change-over to virtual meetings — something they have been planning for more than a year. The current way of streaming is more of a stop-gap on their way to what has been planned, said Moghrabi, calling the Zoom meeting platform a "last minute" arrangement that will eventually be replaced with more substantial, in-house software that will better allow online meetings.