Easthampton officials at odds over 'drone' video cameras
Easthampton assistant planner Benjamin Webb, at podium, addresses a city council meeting covered by Easthampton Cable Access Television on Tuesday. Several small cameras like this one at right, permanently mounted around the second floor meeting room of the Easthampton municipal building, provide video images for coverage of government affairs on ECAT Channel 20.
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Several small, permanently mounted cameras in the second floor meeting room of the Easthampton municipal building provide video images for coverage of the city council meetings by Easthampton Cable Access Television.
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Easthampton Cable Access Television station manager Kathleen Lynch produces a live feed of the city council meeting from the in-house studio at the back of the municipal building second floor meeting room. Several small cameras mounted permanently around the room provide video images for coverage of the city council meetings on ECAT Channel 20.
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EASTHAMPTON — A move to give residents a chance to watch their elected and appointed officials at work on all manner of city boards has met resistance after some city volunteers objected to expanded video recording of public meetings.
In an Oct. 24 memo, Mayor Michael A. Tautznik urged all boards and committees to activate video recording equipment installed in the Municipal Building meeting rooms so that Easthampton Community Access Television can broadcast every meeting on the local access station and make it available online. Two committees voted not to do so.
Councilor Joseph P. McCoy said he believes the use of such recording capability makes for better government.
“If we have the technology, we should make this available to the taxpayers,” he said. “I don’t see how you can be a volunteer on a city board or an elected official and not want the utmost transparency and accessibility for what you do.”
The Community Preservation Act Committee voted Sept. 20 not to record its meetings, and the Easthampton Housing Partnership took a similar vote Nov. 7.
Robert Harrison, who serves on both boards, is a strong opponent of the move.
“This thing is very invasive and, I think, a waste of taxpayers’ money. I know I’m not alone on this,” Harrison said.
He said if recording becomes mandatory, he will resign from the three boards he sits on.
“I feel bad about this. I’ve always felt joy and pleasure in volunteering and going to these meetings as a volunteer effort,” he said. “Now it feels like there’s someone watching over.”
Tautznik said video cameras and microphones were installed in each city meeting room as part of a city and ECAT initiative to increase accessibility to videos of city meetings. The first phase of the initiative, completed last year, was to build the ECAT studio in the rear of the second-floor meeting room and install technology to broadcast City Council and School Committee meetings live on the local access station.
“The next step was to see if we could get as many of the boards’ and committees’ meetings on cable as possible,” Tautznik said. The cameras only need to be turned on and off, which means an ECAT videographer does not need to be there during all the meetings, he said. The $2,400 project was paid for by a fee charged to cable subscribers in the city, he said.
Emalie Gainey, deputy press secretary for the state attorney general’s office, said that the Open Meeting Law requires public bodies to allow “any person” to record an open meeting, but stops there.
“The law does not require public bodies to record themselves, nor does it require them to provide others the means to do so,” she said.
ECAT station manager Kathleen Lynch said she thinks the effort to videotape all meetings could set a precedent for other communities, and she doesn’t understand why boards would object to the videotaping.
“It’s my opinion that when you have an opportunity to video a meeting and you oppose it, it gives the appearance of impropriety, even if there isn’t any,” she said.
Easthampton may be one of the first communities in the commonwealth to be dealing with this issue, said Katie S. McCue of the Massachusetts Municipal Association. She said she has not heard of communities asking boards to record themselves.
“Videotaping is a popular tool for most cities and towns, so I’d guess that as the technology like this becomes more available, the public will have even more opportunities to plug in,” she said Tuesday. “Most cities and towns do videotape some meetings, but I haven’t heard of any protest or push-back.”
Northampton Community Television Executive Director Al Williams said his station broadcasts every City Council and School Committee meeting, plus most Planning Board meetings and any public forum or other meeting that seems to be of public interest. He said that if he could be sure unmanned video cameras could get good quality video and audio recordings, it would be a great way to cover more meetings with less manpower.
When the cameras became functional in September, committees received instructions on how to use them. That’s what caused Harrison, who serves on the Community Preservation Act Committee and the Easthampton Housing Partnership, to suggest those panels refuse to activate the camera.
City Solicitor John H. Fitz-Gibbon said the Housing Partnership and CPA Committee are within their rights in choosing not to videotape. He said the Open Meeting Law requires boards to allow residents to record meetings, but does not state that the board is required to record itself.
On the CPA Committee, the vote against recording meetings was four in favor, with Harry Schumann and City Councilor Daniel C. Hagan abstaining. The Housing Partnership decided the same by a vote of five in favor, with James Sullivan abstaining and Chairwoman Jackie Brousseau-Pereira voting against.
Harrison said he opposes the “unmanned drone” cameras because they are unnecessary. He believes their presence would change the atmosphere at the meetings and could lead to members’ comments being misconstrued.
“I was on the City Council for years and had no problem with that being videotaped, but that group is a compensated, elected board, and their meetings are very structured,” he said. “Everyone is very careful what they say, and it’s not the same with volunteer boards.”
Harrison said volunteer board meetings are more informal, an atmosphere he and others like. Broadcasting all the meetings would make people less comfortable to inquire into how each other’s weekends were or make a joke, he said.
At the Easthampton Housing Partnership meeting, member Andrew Tilbe said he was concerned that someone could misinterpret something “completely innocent” more easily through watching a video than if they were at the meeting.
“It could be used against you down the road, if taken out of context,” he said.
Harrison also said he did not buy into the idea that there was a lot of public interest in watching all the meetings, whether on cable or on the ECAT website.
Lynch said that most meeting videos are viewed by between one and seven people, although a few videos have been watched by hundreds.
Gainey, of the attorney general’s office, said she could not comment on an incident at a recent CPA Committee meeting when a person tried to activate one of the cameras and was told not to by a committee member. At the Nov. 15 meeting, David Gardner, an ECAT board member and volunteer, informed the CPA Committee that he was going to activate the camera in the room.
Gardner, who often videotapes meetings for his website, www.easthamptonminutes.com, was at the same time using his own camera to record the meeting.
Harrison told Gardner not to activate the ECAT camera, and the two argued about Gardner’s rights as an ECAT official to activate the ECAT camera, in addition to his own. “That camera’s not going on,” Harrison said. “I’ll cancel the meeting and reschedule the meeting.”
In an email to the Gazette, Gardner said he believes the committee was wrong to prevent him from turning on the camera. He also said he believes threatening to end the meeting “crossed a line.”
The city could require the bodies to record themselves either through a City Council ordinance or through an administrative code, which would be written by the mayor and approved by the City Council, Tautznik said.
“It’s certainly an option, although I didn’t expect it to go that far,” Tautznik said. “I think people have a right to see this stuff.”
McCoy noted that he recently had to miss two important subcommittee meetings and found the ECAT videos of the meetings helpful in getting up to speed. “I think it’s a phenomenal resource to have, whether for an elected official or for a citizen,” he said.
The City Council is scheduled to take up the issue at its Dec. 19 meeting, but Councilor Daniel D. Rist is concerned that if the council requires recording at all meetings, volunteers may start leaving the committees.
“My feeling is that everything should be transparent. But many people signed up as volunteers without knowing that they would be on video,” he said.
“I’m not in favor of an ordinance to force committees to use the cameras,” Rist said. “However, I believe that in time, committee members will agree to it.”
Rebecca Everett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.