Here’s a message to all those government boards that don’t want TV cameras and cell phones capturing their every move because they might catch them doing something embarrassing, stupid or illegal: Too bad.
The town of Root in Montgomery County found itself in the middle of a major controversy when its town clerk, Sherrie Ericksen, refused to sign off on a marriage license for a gay couple in part, she said, because of her religious objection to same-sex marriage.
On Wednesday night, the town board held its first meeting since the controversy erupted, and a packed crowd of citizens showed up to share their views.
Before the meeting, town officials announced they were prohibiting video and audio recordings during the meeting. Anyone who took out a cell phone to record the meeting would be removed.
“No tapes, no cell phones, no social media,” Supervisor Gary Kamp told the crowd.
Here’s what the state Open Meetings Law (specifically Public Officers Law Article 7, Section 103(d)1) says on the subject of recording public meetings:
“Any meeting of a public body that is open to the public shall be open to being photographed, broadcast, webcast, or otherwise recorded and/or transmitted by audio or video means. As used herein the term ‘broadcast’ shall also include the transmission of signals by cable.”
Robert Freeman, executive director of the state Committee on Open Government, has written that as long as the taping allows the board to conduct its proceedings in an orderly manner and doesn’t disrupt the meeting, boards can’t ban the practice. Government boards also have to make reasonable accommodations for recording of meetings, such as setting up a place in the back of the room for TV cameras.
The board knew full well the level of public interest in this meeting beforehand, and it should have established a place for TV cameras to set up. If there wasn’t enough room, the meeting should have been moved to a larger venue.
As for banning citizens from using their cell phones to record the meeting, there’s absolutely no legal justification for it. Someone in the crowd pointing a cell phone at the board can’t legitimately be considered disruptive.
The simple fact here is that board members didn’t want citizens and the media capturing their beleaguered town clerk on tape, and they didn’t want anyone posting a recording of what they said at the meeting on the web or on TV because it might be embarrassing. And fear of embarrassment is not a legal reason for violating the Open Meetings Law.
What government boards count on is citizens and members of the media either not knowing the law or not being willing to raise an objection to a violation. They’ll pull this stunt every chance they get if they think they can get away with it. Often they do.
Don’t let them.