Phil Plays Games with Village Money
Updated: Jan 23, 2021
At the last board meeting, January 12, we listened to our current board fall all over themselves to pat Phil on the back for 'saving the village $30,000' because he bought a new microphone which was supposed to solve ALL of the audio issues since our village can not seem to figure out how to have a Zoom meeting without issues.
Before the meeting began we heard this:
Phil: I'm wondering how the new sound system sounds?
Brian: Sounds Good.
Phil: It should be real clear. The mic is way over here.
Doug: Yup, sounds very good.
Phil: ok, omnipolar is the way to go.
Ryan: That was $30,000 bucks, Phil?
Phil: HAHA, no that was the quote from the company. I picked one up from Best Buy, same technology for $200.
Ryan: Did you get multiple bids?
Phil: Absolutely, I went to three different Best Buy websites, unfortunately they all had the same price.
Doug: Best Buy price matches, so you ALWAYS get the best price at Best Buy. Thus the name.
Ryan: Fact Check violation, Doug, be careful.
Normally a $200 purchase would be well below the threshold to require bids and going through the laborious process of assessing the solutions. For example, if Kenny told the board he wanted to spend $200 on equipment for the driving range, we assume that Kenny who knows golf, has assessed the problem, determined a solution and is proposing the best solution that’s in the budget and cost effective. Because of his background and experience we know him to be fully competent to both accurately assess a problem and communicate a solution. To my knowledge, no one in the village staff has expertise in audio visual equipment -- and if they do, since moving to Zoom meetings, they have yet to be consulted.
Phil loves to use the phrase "You don't know what you don't know" as a way of both dismissing the concerns raised by residents who question his actions and as a way to excuse his own poor decision making process. When it comes to the issues with the remote Zoom experience, Phil has no first hand knowledge of the problem, I highly doubt Phil fully even understands the situation to the extent that he could communicate the problem to an audio visual expert. So, before I dig into why the board shouldn't be so quick to pat themselves on the back for this purchase, let's actually define the problem.
At the core of the issue is that the Zoom meeting experience is awful.
When the governor put out the executive order allowing remote meetings to occur as a mitigation for the global pandemic, it came with a pretty exact caveat. The meeting experience must be contemporaneous (or just like) the in person experience. This means that technically, if you can see it and hear it in person; you should be able to see it and hear it in a remote meeting experience. For many municipalities this wasn't that much of a change, they have been airing their public meetings on public access or in an online live stream for years. However, our village has not been. To the semi-causal observer this would have been a prime opportunity to step up into the current century and be more, not less, transparent.
Before all the Trustees stayed home, we had a situation that we had 7 board members, the CAO, and the attorney in a room at RedTail and the public at home watching Phil on a single laptop with only the built in speaker/microphone for sound. Despite multiple notices from the public both to the board and to the Public Access Counselor, this board did nothing to improve the experience. We have multiple meetings where the only person who was heard was Phil and when he gave the laptop to Trustee Berman during Trustee comments.
Then after one actual in person meeting and one that had to be postponed due to capacity issues, Phil decided that it was best if he'd host the board meetings from the conference room at Village Hall and have all the board dial in remotely from their own homes. To be honest, this was a vast improvement over the previous remote experience because it allowed us to hear all the Trustees, but the solution fell apart when we had to have two days of Election Board Hearings where there was a mix of in person and remote people.
Remember, at no time in the past 10 months has Phil had to be on the remote end of a meeting. At no time in the past 10 months has our CAO been on the remote end of a meeting. As it is painfully obvious, despite most of the professional, working world moving to more and more remote, video conferences, Phil is not adept at running a Zoom call. This has been pointed out to him during a board meeting, by board members.
Phil's Prized Solution
Ok, so, while obnoxious that Ryan and Doug were publicly mocking the requirements to price check and be good stewards of our tax dollars, I didn't think much of this new microphone purchase until I was at the Election Board Hearing on Wednesday evening. So, Phil, please thank Mr. Berman for me because that hearing gave me the opportunity to see this amazing microphone you purchased. Remember how I mentioned that I have some experience with audio equipment? So, let's review what Phil spent $200 on:
Do you see it? Phil spent $200 on the World of Warcraft Gaming microphone from Best Buy. So, I took about 4 seconds and did a quick Google search -- here's the top locations to buy that microphone from -- ALL of them are less than $200!
Please note that Phil paid a premium for the World of Warcraft version of that microphone at Best Buy. Without the WoW branding, that microphone is $70 cheaper, even at Best Buy.
Oh but wait -- if you go to Amazon, there's a coupon for additional money off these Blue Yeti Microphones. And I know that the Village has a Prime Account, since I see the charge for it in the expenses -- so the excuse that Phil could get it quicker is moot.
Had Phil done the same google search I did, he could have saved the village $76.50, at least. But that only answers the point about price shopping and while, yes, Mr. Ulrich, Best Buy does price match, you have to know that there is a better price out there and to ask for that price match. It doesn't begin to answer if that was the best solution to solve the audio problems.
We know from attempting to listen to the Election Hearings on January 19th (the ones that covered the incumbents' objections) that the audio was awful. After 5 hours of listening to every third word and most of those words were garbled, I wondered who would have ever thought that a gaming microphone was the solution to the Zoom audio problems.
Zoom, Itself, is part of the issue
See Zoom is designed for virtual meetings -- the concept being that everyone would be in their remote location with their own laptop and sound connections. That's not the same as a true video conferencing solution. I've been in some of the most high-tech conference rooms with a big screen TV at one end of the table a camera that follows the speaker around, the ability to see everyone in all the rooms covered and the presentation that's being projected. The microphones are either in the ceiling or on the table and there's been some that I've not even needed to wire my laptop in to project my presentation. Those are expensive solutions -- cool as you can imagine, but not nearly what this village needs.
Thus, Zoom would be pretty ideal if every meeting had every person attending on their own device and separated from each other so there's not feedback with the sound. The problem with this is that
I'm not convinced Phil can run Zoom without hands on support from the CAO.
I'm not sure, but I think there's a requirement that some portion of the public body be in the same room with each other -- like maybe the Clerk and the President of the Board.
Why a gaming microphone isn't the answer.
First, the most simple reason is that a gaming microphone is designed to pick-up sound in a small radius -- yes, Phil, even the ones with different pick-up patterns including "Omni-directional" (It's not Omni-polar -- see my point about not having knowledge on the topic?) So, it might help with the small conference room in Village Hall where there are three people, but when we had a hearing in RedTail, that Microphone (even placed on a cardboard box of honor) can't pick-up the sound clearly.
Next, it's not a long term solution. Someday we will go back to in person meetings and if our village has learned anything about having informed and active residents, we need to consider a long term solution to allow the public to watch government remotely. We may not allow remote public comments if everyone is in person, but we need to consider a solution that allows the public to watch from anywhere. This would also allow trustees to be able to participate if they can not be there, physically.
Finally, Phil overpaid for it. There was no reason to pay a premium to buy a World of Warcraft branded microphone. Full stop. He wasted the village's money -- assuming this isn't a gift he gave the village and he will be reimbursed for it.
So, what are better solutions?
While researching, I brainstormed a couple of options that I think could be reasonable long-term, cost effective solutions. When I work with clients on strategies, I like to bring them a good, better, best approach and as such, I bring the same to you and this village.
Return Phil's overpriced mic (or if it's not returnable, do NOT reimburse him for this waste of money) and pick up any of the small USB conference room microphones designed for small spaces. Additionally, have everyone signing to Zoom for their own personal video.
Cost: As low as $26 on Amazon.
Advantage -- kinda cheap, IF we ignore the overpriced microphone Phil bought because he doesn't know anything about microphones.
Disadvantage -- will not be a long term solution as it does not address the situation once we return to RedTail for meetings.
I have heard that the village owns a Polycom conference phone -- commonly known in my world as a "bat phone.". But if they do not, they are not expensive and would allow the audio to not be run on the laptop, but through the phone lines. Again, we would still need everyone to log into Zoom on their own device for the camera.
If you purchased it new from Amazon it would be $273.90 -- but they have a certified refurbished one for $92!
Cost: As low as $92 from Amazon.
Advantage -- Maybe a free solution if we still own the conference phone; but would be a low cost option. Would not add to the pull on the stretched thin WiFi at RedTail when we return to RedTail. Would allow remote comments without having to do anything different today. Would have consistent clear sound
Disadvantage -- Once meetings return to fully in person, this may require the addition of a few satellites to the central phone to be purchased to cover the whole room.
When thinking ahead to what meetings could look like post the pandemic and ideally how it could be made easier for the residents to get involved. There should be a solution that allows for live streaming of the meetings with video and audio. This typically would involve a microphone per trustee, attorney, CAO, and public comments and a camera to video the proceedings. Run this through a mixer board and push audio and video out in real time while doing the recording at the same time.
Advantage -- this would be the most professional solution and have long term use. This would help us enter the modern age and encourage awareness if not participation in our village's government. It increases transparency and holds elected officials accountable to those who elected them because nothing can be hidden.
Disadvantage -- It would cost between $1500 to $5,000 to implement. Correction: we actually have an audio-visual person in the village and he was kind enough to reach out -- the solution could cost as much as $30,000 depending and I based my estimate on my home podcasting rig -- which admittedly wouldn't be as high-end. That said, there is no chance that the World of Warcraft Microphone is the "same technology" as the $30,000 solution offered.
Given the state of our meetings today, if the village were my client, I would recommend the "Better" solution. It solves the situation today AND is usable into tomorrow. It would have cost less than Phil's Gaming Microphone and would bring far better sound and be far more professional than the Mic-on-a-Box.
Wrapping this Up
Look, I don't have any issue with the fact there is no one on the board or on village staff that has experience with audio visual solutions. What I have issue with is that Phil (who is asking you to re-elect him) doesn't have the self-awareness to ask for real help. Whether it is ego or fear or a desire to be great problem solver, he makes poor decisions because he refuses to seek wise counsel.
Our village has some incredibly smart and talented residents. It has been my experience that the vast majority are willing to share their knowledge and point you into where you can gather more information. The hubris this board has and the arrogance it takes against residents thinking that we aren't smart enough to really figure out what is going on is insulting.
Do not forget this is the same board that never asks any questions; that has approved spending without budget repeatedly (which is a pretty large violation of IL State Code); and mock residents when we see errors, like missing $120,000 cash. There are currently two people on this board who are asking you to trust them with your tax dollars again in April. If Phil can't be trusted to even do the simplest Google search to see if he can buy a microphone cheaper than Best Buy, why should we trust him with a nearly 4 million dollar budget?