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Easthampton City Council to discuss videotaping as volunteers leave boards

Robert Harrison and David Boyle said they will no longer serve because the boards are being pressured to videotape their meetings using equipment installed in meeting rooms to make more meetings available for viewing on local cable channels and online.

Soon after the cameras were installed, Mayor Michael A. Tautznik issued a memo Oct. 24 asking boards to activate the cameras for each meeting. The Community Preservation Act Committee and the Easthampton Housing Partnership voted not to use the cameras, but some city officials say the City Council or the mayor should consider requiring the committees to record their meetings.

City Councilor Daniel D. Rist said he is not surprised volunteers have started to leave the committees. “I believe we’re going to lose more volunteers who didn’t know they were going to be on TV,” he said Tuesday. “I think we just need to calm down and give them some time.”

While Rist said he is “absolutely opposed” to forcing the appointed committees to videotape meetings, tonight he will present a proposed rule that would require all City Council subcommittees to do so. Currently, City Council and School Committee meetings are all recorded, as per the city’s contract with Easthampton Community Access Television, but the City Council’s subcommittee meetings are not always recorded, Rist said.

He said his proposal, though it does not address appointed boards, will give the councilors a chance to discuss the larger issue of recording as it relates to all city officials.

“We’ll discuss it all,” he said. “Some may feel that people should be compelled to record, and I disagree, but I think it should be debated.”

The cameras were purchased by the city using $2,400 from fees charged to cable subscribers in the city, but ECAT is responsible for uploading the recordings to its website and airing them on channels 5 and 20.

Robert Harrison, the chairman of the Community Preservation Act Committee and a member of the Easthampton Housing Partnership, told the Gazette that he planned to resign from both boards because of the controversy over the issue, but especially due to the Gazette’s editorial that argued that the boards should tape their meetings.

“I have decided that it is best to resign from the two mentioned committees in order not to cause anxiety amongst my co-members,” he wrote in an email. “I do realize many do not share my opinion on this issue and the last thing I wish to do is cause any interference with the good works of these groups.”

Harrison said he opposes videotaping appointed boards because it could change the informal atmosphere of the meetings and lead to members’ comments being misconstrued. He said that could especially occur if a member forgot the meeting was being videotaped because, unlike a cameraman, the small, wall-mounted video camera is less visible.

David Boyle said he will not seek reappointment as a 15-year member of the Economic and Industrial Commission when his term expires at the end of the month because he disagrees with the videotaping supporters’ statements that recording would increase transparency on the boards.

“I understand and accept the role of technology and its increasing use, and in all honesty, could probably get over it,” he wrote in an email sent to the commission, the City Council and the Gazette.

“However, I am deeply troubled that some of the advocates of this convenient technology have adopted a perverse rationale,” he continued. “I see no reason to civically volunteer if the assumption out there is that I am up to no good unless I am videotaped.”

Both Boyle and Harrison said they will stay on the High School Building Committee until it is dissolved, which is likely to be in the spring after construction is completed.

City Council President Pro Tem Joseph P. McCoy called Boyle’s and Harrision’s decisions “unfortunate.”

“Both people are friends and have done outstanding service to the city, but if this technology is available to us, we should increase accessibility for what we do,” McCoy said Tuesday.

He said that he expects that at tonight’s meeting, Rist will suggest his proposed rule and, after a brief discussion, the issue will be referred to the City Council’s rules and government regulations subcommittee. The subcommittee, which Rist chairs, will then choose whether to recommend passing the rule, and the whole council will debate it again at a later date before voting.

Rist said the City Council only has the power to pass rules regarding its own operation, so if the council wanted to require all meetings to be taped, it would have to pass a city ordinance. The mayor could also write an administrative code, he said, but that would also require council approval.

Emalie Gainey, deputy press secretary for the state attorney general’s office, and City Solicitor John H. Fitz-Gibbon both said the state’s Open Meeting Law requires public bodies to allow “any person” to record an open meeting, but does not require public bodies to record themselves.

Rebecca Everett can be reached at reverett@gazettenet.com.

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