By Rich Pollack
For almost four months, Highland Beach residents have been unable to watch live coverage of town meetings — either on their computers or on TV — as the town scrambled to meet requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Now commission meetings are again streaming live and will soon be available on the town’s public access TV station.
While modern technology and the inability of two separate systems to communicate with each other still stand in the way of a permanent resolution, the town has resorted to an old-school solution to ensure residents can see the meetings live.
During a meeting this month, a sign language interpreter whose image could be seen on computer screens provided translations for hearing-impaired people. Two interpreters worked the three-hour meeting and shared the job.
The idea, Commissioner Rhoda Zelniker said, came from her granddaughter — a 20-year-old college student, who along with her sister took sign language classes in high school.
“They were occasionally asked to sign at various school functions as part of their education,” Zelniker said.
The inability to watch meetings live for several months raised concerns among some interested residents.
“This is a big problem,” said Harry Anwar, who serves on the board of the Boca Highland Beach Club and Marina. “No one knows what’s happening at the meetings unless someone goes and then informs them.”
Recent commission meetings have lasted between three and four hours, and few residents sat through them entirely.
Town leaders agreed in June to temporarily shut down their live coverage of meetings after learning of lawsuits filed against other municipalities accused of not complying with specific provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The law, it turns out, requires governments to ensure that website content and other information provided to the public be accessible to people with disabilities, including those who have trouble hearing.
“The goal is to make sure there is accessibility to video and audio content for people who are hard of hearing or deaf,” said Miami attorney J. Courtney Cunningham, who has filed more than 30 lawsuits against state, county and local governments in hopes of bringing them into compliance.
Commissioners originally hoped to have the meetings online and on public access TV by August, but discovered they would need a converter to put closed captioning on the town’s systems.
That converter, commissioners learned last month, will cost in the neighborhood of $67,000 and would take several months to acquire because the town requires competitive bidding on high-dollar projects.
Until a converter is in place, the town is likely to continue using the interpreters at a cost of $170 an hour per interpreter for the first two hours and $85 each for every additional hour.
While residents are unable to view live feeds of commission meetings, videos with closed captioning are available online usually within a few days of the meeting.
Small towns such as South Palm Beach, Manalapan, Ocean Ridge and Briny Breezes do not video-record or live-stream their meetings. Gulf Stream, like Boynton Beach, does not live-stream but offers video-recorded meetings through its YouTube channel, which has closed captioning available. Lantana posts audio-only recordings of its meetings.
Highland Beach commissioners said they hope to permanently resolve the issue quickly to ensure transparency.
“We have to make sure we’re giving our residents what they need,” Vice Mayor Alysen Africano Nila said.