Manager of Hadley Public Access Television halts disposal of recordings of government meetings



Last modified: Saturday, April 11, 2015

HADLEY — As manager of the town’s public access television station, Richard D. Trueswell has been filming Hadley’s government meetings and important civic events on and off for the past 25 years.

He has also been deciding which recordings to keep and which to toss into a Dumpster in the back of the senior center parking lot on Middle Street where the publicly funded and municipally run Hadley Public Access Television is housed.

“Everything that needs to be saved is being saved,” Trueswell, a town employee, told the Gazette on Thursday when the newspaper inquired about his practice of discarding recordings of government meetings. “Nothing’s been thrown out that doesn’t need to be thrown out. If it’s even slightly important, I’ll keep it.”

Trueswell’s disposal of tapes recently came under scrutiny when a town resident sought to review a Select Board meeting from the fall of 2012 and learned that the recording no longer existed, according to David Moskin, a community access advisory board member and former selectman.

The issue was raised during a March 31 meeting of the advisory board during which Trueswell revealed that he has been throwing out old recordings of government meetings for years, much to the surprise of board members, Moskin said.

“Towns tend to keep these types of meetings forever,” he said. “This is a taxpayer-paid taping. He’s been chucking them for years.”

Moskin added, “There’s a lot of value and expense involved with taping, broadcasting and editing meetings. In my mind, this is public property. Why would you destroy it?”

Asked how many recordings he’s thrown out over the years, Trueswell said, “I’ve never kept track of it.” He described the tapes he has discarded as “routine meetings, routine business.”

Trueswell said one of the primary reasons he tossed old video recordings, which include VHS tapes and DVDs, into a Dumpster in the parking lot is the lack of space.

As he explained it, the cable access station in its earliest years would tape over previously recorded meetings on VHS tapes. When the station started using DVDs in the mid-1990s, he made a practice of keeping any recordings for at least two years before throwing them out, he said.

He said he received approval “a long time ago” from Town Administrator David G. Nixon and his predecessor to discard old recordings once official government meeting minutes were approved.

Nixon told the Gazette he has no recollection of discussions with Trueswell about the community access station’s archival practices.

He said he only learned of the matter this week when Trueswell told him it had become an issue with the cable advisory board.

Nixon said he was aware that VHS tapes had been taped over in the past, but nothing more.

“I don’t think I knew that DVDs were being discarded,” Nixon said. “I instructed him (Trueswell) to keep all DVDs from now on ... It’s an easy request to fulfill.”

The Massachusetts Municipal Records Retention Manual states that recordings of meetings for public television access must be retained for at least six months in accordance with the state’s Open Meeting Law.

Those recordings include “any visual recording of a meeting for the purpose of airing on personal televisions or cable television, whether created at the request of the public body or not, and if maintained by the public body.”

The final written meeting minutes and any draft versions that differ substantially from those minutes must be kept permanently on record, according to state law.

“Those are the rules,” said Brian McNiff, a spokesman for the secretary of state’s office, which oversees public records in Massachusetts.

Practices elsewhere

Unlike many community access television stations which are nonprofit organizations, Hadley’s operation is a department within municipal government.

Many of those nonprofit stations retain their recordings and broadcasts of government business as a permanent record. Northampton Community Television, for example, has made a practice of retaining copies both at its station and at Forbes Library.

“You want to keep copies in two places,” said P. Al Williams, executive director at NCTV. “In general, most places are consciously saving that material somewhere. A partnership with a library seems ideal.”

Williams also noted that a lot of archiving is being done online now and expressed surprise that a community access station would discard its recordings of government meetings.

“No one really does that,” he said. “The purpose of recording these meetings is for transparency and retaining them is part of transparency. We preserved everything that’s being produced.”

Northampton City Council President William H. Dwight has been working with NCTV to get more timely access to video recordings of government business online and said he was disappointed to learn that audio-visual recordings of government business aired on public access television stations must only be kept by a public body for six months before they can be destroyed or thrown away.

In Northampton, NCTV’s recordings of City Council meetings are considered part of the public record.

“It seems the law needs to be updated,” Dwight said. “Meeting minutes don’t reflect the mood or tenor of the vote or debate or discussion and public comment. Video recordings are pretty comprehensive.”

Amherst Media is under contract with the Town of Amherst and records most all important government meetings, which it digitizes and saves on archive.org online.

Jim Lescault, its executive director, said the non-profit group is the only community access station in the state that has received a Community Preservation Act grant to archive materials deemed part of the town’s historical record. Amherst Media also had a partnership with Jones Library to archive its recordings in the past.

“We are now the repository,” Lescault said. “We do not throw any of them out and we don’t edit them.”

In Hadley, the community access advisory committee voted Wednesday to recommend to the Select Board, as policy, that all town audio-visual recordings of meetings be properly backed up and archived and that no records be discarded or destroyed. The Select Board meets again April 15.

“The value of the archived records, or the legality of discarding/destroying the tapes, is not for our committee to consider,” Moskin wrote to the Select Board on behalf of the board. “We do consider the public money spent to create the materials and the trust given to town employees to safeguard vital public records.”

Trueswell said that while an unknown number of tapes have gone into the trash, he has made an effort to retain recordings of significance, such as annual Town Meetings, special meetings, graduations, civic events, and “particularly controversial meetings,” as he put it.

And Trueswell said he will not throw out any more recordings.

“We still have a lot of meetings on tape I’ve been gradually transferring to DVD,” he said. “I’m going to keep everything in perpetuity on a portable hard drive.”

Dan Crowley can be reached at dcrowley@gazettenet.com.




 


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