Yet Policy – Register Or Be Expelled –
Isn’t In State Law, County Attorney Says
COOPERSTOWN – County Attorney Ellen Coccoma today acknowledged a new requirement that the public and the press register before taking photographs or videos at county board meetings is not contained in state law.
“The law is silent on this,” she replied when asked if the state Freedom of Information Act allows elected bodies to require reporters, photographers and citizens to “sign in,” and to expel them if they fail to do so.
Still, the registration policy stands for now, causing the company that operates www.AllOTSEGO.com, as well as The Freeman’s Journal and Hometown Oneonta, to suspend videotaping county board meetings, a public service it has provided at its own expense for the past two years.
Jim Kevlin, editor of the three news outlets, said the company’s reporters have never been required to register with a local government to report on or photograph a public meeting in Otsego County, and they aren’t going to start now. “It smacks of the Soviet Union,” he said.
Coccoma’s comment followed a discussion among county reps at today’s meeting of the county Board of Representatives on a policy Coccoma proposed to the board’s Administration Committee on Jan. 24, entitled “the Use of Photographic and Recording Devices.”
Thinking the matter routine, members of the committee who were present said, they voted aye: chair Meg Kennedy, C-Mount Vision, and county reps Gary Koutnik, D-Oneonta, and Peter Oberacker, R-Schenevus. According to the minutes, committee member Andrew Stammel, D-Oneonta, had left a few minutes before, and board chair David Bliss, R-Cooperstown/Town of Oneonta, an ex officio member, had stepped out of the committee meeting briefly, so they didn’t weigh in.
The policy prohibits newspaper people and the public from taking photos or videotapes unless they register with Clerk of the Board Carol McGovern. “Violations of the guidelines may result in exclusion from the meeting at the discretion of the chair of the board or committee, as the case may be,” the policy reads.
This covers traditional photography, which has been a routine part of meeting coverage for decades. In addition to the videotaping for AllOTSEGO.com, members of the public attending the meeting frequently – routinely, even – will lift up their iPhones to record discussion germane to the issue they are there for. Now, they must register too.
The new policy says its purpose is to ensure “meetings are conducted in an orderly fashion.” But county Rep. Dan Wilber, R-Burlington, said at today’s meeting, “I never felt uncomfortable” due to the videotaping.
Learning of the new policy, AllOTSEGO.com, The Freeman’s Journal and Hometown Oneonta asked an opinion from the state’s Committee on Open Meetings, a division of the New York Department of State.
In reply, Robert Freeman, the committee’s executive director, said a public meeting is a public meeting – and not just for the press, but all citizens. who cannot be forced to “sign in” in order to attend and “otherwise carry out lawful behavior at the meeting.”
Asked about it at today’s meeting, Coccoma said Freeman’s opinion is just advisory.
Asked a few days ago what to do now, Bliss, the board chair, said AllOTSEGO.com personnel are welcome to continue videotaping, but might have to register. So no taping occurred today.
Kennedy, the Admin Committee chair, was conciliatory: In light of the concerns raised, she told her colleagues today, she will bring the issue back before the committee when it next meets at 9 a.m. Friday, Feb. 22.
“Everyone’s expectations can be met,” she said.
Kevlin expressed hope that happens. To get a ruling requires filing an Article 78 proceeding, which is expensive. “Lawmakers shouldn’t have to be forced to obey the law,” he said.
Other than registration, and expulsion tied to failure to register, he said he has no objection to measures ensuring the orderly conduct of county board meetings.
Early on, he recalled, former board chair Kathy Clark, R-Otego, asked one of the company’s videographers to remain in one place, and her request has been honored ever since.
On a related issue, it turns out that, according to the county board’s Rules of Order, its Administration Committee can approve policies that are binding on the whole board, and this policy was posted on the county’s website to some board members’ surprise.
At today’s meeting, Stammel asked, “Should policy that applies to the board be discussed by the whole board?”
If that is the county board’s wish, fine, the county attorney said.