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Government: Can you hear me now? Not in council chambers

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

Some meetings in Georgetown County Council chambers have sounded a lot like a Verizon Wireless commercial lately.

“Can you hear me now?”

But unlike in the ads, the answer is usually a “no” followed by microphone tapping and looks of frustration.

At the end of last year, the council moved into what was once the county’s main courtroom as part of an ongoing $1.8 million renovation at the historic courthouse. Several council-appointed commissions meet in the room to conduct business.

Part of the reason for the move was to make it easier for the public to hear. The former meeting room was smaller, but the low ceiling made it hard to hear, particularly when there was a packed house.

But the move into a larger, more elegant space hasn’t worked out as county officials hoped.

A property owner who went to the Planning Commission this month seeking a variance came forward just before the board adjourned asking what the decision had been. He said neither he nor his builder could hear.

When Murrells Inlet restaurant owners showed up to support a change on vendor rules this spring, they finally had to walk up to the raised table where the board sits to talk with commission members.

“The acoustics are terrible,” one said.

At a recent County Transportation Committee meeting, most of what was said was inaudible to the audience. Paulette Radcliffe, the employee who takes the minutes, said even she hadn’t heard what the committee said even though she sat at the staff table.

Council Member Jerry Oakley said he typically doesn’t have any trouble hearing at meetings, but he has received complaints. He often can tell there’s a problem.

“You can look at the expressions on people’s faces and tell they’re having trouble hearing,” Oakley said.

The situation has improved greatly at council meetings, but the problem persists at meetings of the other boards, which meet less frequently.

“I don’t know if it’s because there are less bodies in the audience, but it is more difficult to hear at the Planning Commission and Board of Appeals meetings,” said Boyd Johnson, the county planning director. He has trouble hearing at those meetings, even though he sits in the staff seats at the front of the room.

The county is looking at several solutions, including having a technician at all of the meetings to ensure the sound system is working properly, said Sel Hemingway, the county administrator. A technician is already on hand at of all of council’s meetings and constantly checks to make sure audience members can hear and that council and staff are remembering to turn on their microphones — something that has proved helpful.

Right after the change of venue, getting people to turn on their microphones seemed to be the biggest challenge.

“When we were choosing the equipment, we were looking for some type of self-contained microphones, but we might have been better off without that,” Hemingway said.

Self-contained mics eliminated the need for bulky amplifiers as each microphone has a small speaker at its base.

But the speaker doesn’t work if the microphone is on. As a result, people at the microphones keep switching them off so they can hear and don’t always remember to turn them back on when they start to speak.

The county might install a speaker behind the council dais so the microphones can be left on all the time, Hemingway said. The speaker would be similar to the two in the audience area.

Sound panels are also a possibility.

“We’ve been trying to figure out some type of sound panels that could go in there and be aesthetically pleasing,” Hemingway said. “There are a lot of commercial panels you can readily buy, but you’ve got to compromise and get whatever they have.”

County staff has talked about making their own sound panels so they will fit in better with the room’s style.

Council Member Austin Beard said he sometimes has difficulty hearing speakers who come to the podium to address council. He’s not sure if his ears are at fault or the equipment. But based on similar complaints it seems likely it is the microphone at the podium.

It could be that microphone has a feature that causes it to cut itself off if it hasn’t been in use for a certain amount of time and it’s not being cut back on between speakers, Hemingway said.

That’s one of the things he and staff still need to look into.

“We still haven’t been there long enough that everything is settled in,” Oakley said. “If we met every day, we probably could do it in two or three weeks.”

But council normally meets twice a month and, for the last three months, has only met once a month.

“It takes a while,” he said. “But we’re on the case.”

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