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Eric Cotton

Video snub an FOI issue

A Wallingford resident asked the local public access television station WPAA last week for permission to borrow a camera to record the mayor’s budget press conference for later broadcast. When the station director called the mayor’s office to ask about the length of the meeting, she was told the room was too small for a camera and tripod so video would not be allowed.

But after more requests for coverage prior to the meeting, station director Susan Huizenga arrived at the press conference without the tripod still hoping she could hand off the camera so the event could be recorded. What she recorded instead was an awkward confrontation with the mayor in which his rationale for barring video shifted from logistical concerns to well-reasoned positions like “because we just don’t do it that way” and “it doesn’t matter, this is my meeting.”

Obviously, if the mayor did have concerns about the size of the room, the meeting could have been moved, but that was never really the issue. Beyond barring televised media from the press conference, he also told reporters they couldn’t shoot video on their cell phones, though the Record-Journal reporter, to his credit, went ahead and made a short video anyway.

Beyond the curious scheduling of this event in a small conference room, the question is whether the mayor, by barring WPAA from the meeting, violated the state Freedom of Information Act.

He most certainly did in my opinion.

The press conference, in light of its subject matter (the town budget) and the people present (several town councilors and the finance director) meets the statutory definition of a public meeting. Section 1-200(2), broadly defines a meeting as “any hearing or other proceeding of a public agency.”

You don’t necessarily need to have a quorum of councilors or board members present, it just can’t be a “chance” or “social meeting neither planned nor intended for the purpose of discussing matters relating to official business.” There are also a handful of exemptions in the statute for things like “strategy or negotiations with respect to collective bargaining,” but what happened last week was clearly a public meeting.

The other relevant section of the statute concerns recording, broadcasting and photographing meetings:

“At any meeting of a public agency which is open to the public...proceedings of such public agency may be recorded, photographed, broadcast or recorded for broadcast, subject to such rules as such public agency may have prescribed prior to such meeting...”

The town could adopt rules governing or even prohibiting video at meetings, though fortunately Wallingford hasn’t taken that step and generally opts for more transparency. In the absence of such rules, “recording, photography or the use of such radio and television equipment shall be permitted,” according to the statute.

The station director had been considering filing an FOI complaint, but said by email last week she decided not to pursue the matter. The Record-Journal wasn’t “harmed” in the legal sense, otherwise we’d file our own complaint.

While I can understand if WPAA officials feel it wise not to fight this, I was kind of hoping they would, if only as a reminder to the mayor that the rules do indeed apply to him, as well.

He sure could use it.

Reach Managing Editor/News Eric Cotton at (203) 317-2344 or Follow him on Twitter @ecotton3.

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