Video camera halts meeting

A couple of Oak Harbor residents’ efforts to electronically record open meetings resulted in city administration taking unusual steps, ultimately delaying government progress.

City Administrator Paul Schmidt said he decided to cancel a meeting of the on-site sewer systems ad hoc committee last Thursday after resident Robyn Kolaitis notified the city that she intended to videotape the meeting.

Schmidt said that City Attorney Phil Bleyhl needed time to research the issue of whether videotaping meetings was restricted under state law.

This was the third time in the last two weeks that the recording of meetings has become an issue, even though it appears that state law clearly allows people to videotape and audio tape meetings.

Based on an inquiry from the News-Times, state Attorney General Open Government Ombudsman Tim Ford said he was going to call Bleyhl about the issue last Friday. Ford was surprised that the city would cancel a meeting over an issue that is so clear under the state Open Public Meetings Act.

“As long as it’s not disruptive, our opinion is that they can bring a video camera,” he said, “and I don’t see how a video camera can be disruptive. ... I don’t see how the orderly conduct of a meeting is affected. It’s not like they are being shouted down.”

A state Attorney General’s Opinion and the Municipal Research and Services Center of Washington both have concluded that a person may record a meeting, both audio and video, provided that it would not disrupt the meeting. A stationary audio or video recording device would not disrupt the meeting, the Attorney General concluded.

In her note to city administration, Kolaitis wrote that she intended to use a video recorder in a stationary position. In an interview, she said she had researched the law and just wanted an accurate record.

“The meeting minutes they have taken aren’t always accurate,” she said.

Bleyhl said he looked at a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, which he feels allows for some restrictions on the use of video cameras at public meetings, but that audio tape recorders are allowed. He explained that people with certain disabilities may need to rely on audio recordings for note taking.

Bleyhl conceded that state constitution and Open Public Meetings Act may allow for videotaping, but he said he simply hasn’t had time to research the issue completely.

He contacted Municipal Research and Services Center, a respected organization that provides local governments with research and information services, and was told that videotaping should be allowed.

Yet Bleyhl said he discounted the advice because he didn’t agree with the rationale behind the finding.

“I don’t see a logical extension from audio recordings to videotaping,” he said.

One of his concerns about video, Bleyhl said, is that the nature of a video camera recording could stifle a dialogue.

Ford doesn’t see the logic in that argument. “I suppose the public stifles speech also,” he said sarcastically. “I guess we should have all meetings in secret.”

Ford pointed out that the law allows for the removal of people who are being clearly disruptive.

The backdrop to the recording dispute is the controversy over the Dillard’s Addition sewer system. Residents complained after the city approved a contractor’s request to install a pressurized sewer system in the neighborhood. The vast majority of the 30 residents didn’t find out about it until the contractor started digging up the streets. The residents, who may have to pay more than $15,000 each to hook in, said they didn’t like the type of system chosen for them and would have liked to give input.

In response, the City Council created two different committees to look into the issue.

Two weeks ago, an early incarnation of the so-called Dillard’s Committee met at City Hall. One of the members, Carroll Young, tried to record the meeting with an audio tape.

According to committee members Duane Dillard and Kolaitis, City Administrator Schmidt told Young to stop recording. When she refused, he stopped the meeting and went to speak to Bleyhl about it. He then came back and delayed the meeting until the following week because the attorney realized that two council members were present — Councilman Larry Eaton and Danny Paggao — and that it hadn’t been advertised, as required by law.

The following week, the Dillard’s Committee met again, but with a different make-up. Mayor Patty Cohen replaced Kolaitis and Young with two people who had different views on the issue then the other Dillard residents on the committee. There is a disagreement between city administration and some Dillard residents as to the purpose of the committee, who should appoint the committee members and if the earlier meeting was an official meeting at all.

At the meeting last Monday night, the committee members discussed whether audio taping should be allowed, even though Bleyhl had ruled that it shouldn’t be restricted. The members took a vote on a motion to prevent audio taping, with Councilman Danny Paggao and members Geri Morgan and Hank Koetje voting for it. Councilman Eaton and members Dillard and Mark Saugen voted against it, so the motion did not pass.

On Thursday, the city administration cancelled the meeting of the other committee, the on-site sewer systems ad hoc committee, after learning that Kolaitis planned to videotape it.

Ford said the administration has the right to cancel and re-schedule meetings, but he said there may be reason for concern.

“Why is it taking so long to research the issue and how are they going to get business done if they keep canceling meetings?” he asked rhetorically.

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