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Thursday, May 5, 2016

Fulton County makes state news by prohibiting video taping of meetings

Monday, August 22, 2011

Peter Martin, who tapes public meetings for cable broadcast, pleads his case to Fulton County Quorum Court, minutes after JPs voted to ban video taping of their meetings. Sheriff Buck Foley approached Martin, after he refused to stop taping. Martin claims he has the right to tape meetings under the state's Freedom of Information Act.
"I cannot, as a citizen of Fulton County, sit here and watch you violate the rights of the citizens of this county," said Nancy Cole, interrupting an Aug. 8 meeting of the Fulton County Quorum Court.

Cole's comments touched off a tense showdown over whether quorum court meetings can be video taped.

The issue began at the July 11 meeting of quorum court when Cole and her husband, Jack, set up a video camera, saying they intended to tape meetings, because they and other audience members have a hard time hearing as business is conducted, and the tapes could be shared with those unable to attend meetings.

Fulton County Judge Charles Willett told JPs the Cole's had given him advance notice about the video taping and he had obtained opinions from Jason Owens, an attorney for the Association of Counties, and County Attorney Dwayne Plumlee.

"We have to adopt a rule to either allow or prohibit video recording devices in our quorum court," said Willett.

When a quick motion was made to prohibit taping, JP Marjorie Rogers said, "...other cities and other counties are doing it and it's been working well."

Some JPs questioned how tapes of meetings would be used, and Judge Willett said attorneys he consulted said a video camera at meetings could stop court members and individuals from freely speaking their opinions.

JPs were given three Attorney General opinions and the Freedom of Information Handbook, all saying the public and the news media have the right to broadcast or record government meetings.

The issue was tabled to allow the court to further discuss the issue.

But the August 8 meeting began with another motion to prohibit video taping of meetings.

Nancy Cole was allowed to finish her statement after she interrupted the vote.

Before the vote resumed,

County Attorney Plumlee said he had consulted an Association of County's Attorney who advised a vote on taping was "within the county's rulemaking authority." Plumlee added he knew of nothing in the Freedom of Information act "that would prohibit you from making a rule either way."

One JP asked if, instead of allowing individuals to tape meetings, the county could tape them and have them available for the public to view?

When the vote resumed, JPs David Cunningham, Michael Barnett, Michael Roork, Lynn Guffey, Jack Haney and Jim Bicker voted to ban video taping.

JPs Marjorie Rogers, Cris Newberry and Jimmy Mahler voted to allow taping.

Immediately after the 6-3 vote to ban video taping, Judge Willett said, "Please turn your devices off," addressing two men operating cameras in the jury box area of the courtroom.

Jack Cole and Peter Martin, a citizen who tapes public meetings for broadcast on a Sharp County cable system, both ignored the request and continued taping.

Sheriff Buck Foley then approached the two men and told them to stop taping.

"I respectfully request to the quorum court to reconsider," said Martin. "If you don't reconsider, this is going to be taken to court and settled there...There is supposed to be transparency in government. I have taped (other meetings) for seven years now. I am here because you are violating the Freedom of Information Act."

When Sheriff Foley looked to the court for guidance, Judge Willett again indicated the cameras must be turned off.

"They don't want to be videoed," Foley told the tapers.

"Then they shouldn't have run for public office," Martin replied.

Martin apologized for putting Foley "between a rock and a hard place," and, at one point said, "Are you going to arrest me?"

Foley replied, "No."

The confrontation finally ended when the two cameras were allowed to continue rolling after pointing their lens' away from the JPs, so they could record audio from the meeting.

After the meeting, news reporters and the two camera operators questioned quorum court members as to whether they realize they may be the only governmental body in the state to refuse to allow video taping.

"We can always revisit the issue," said JP Jim Bicker, who indicated the court relied on the advice of its attorneys.

On Friday, August 12, The News called the Association of Counties and asked to speak with staff attorney, Jason Owens who guided quorum court in its decision, only to be informed Owens is not a staff attorney.

Communications Director Randy Kemp later called to say, after checking, he had learned Owens is a private attorney who does work for the Association's Workman's Comp Trust Fund. Kemp said it was unclear why Owens had given Fulton County advise on an issue unrelated to the trust fund.

When The News reached Owens, he said he was unaware of the quorum court vote banning video taping of its meetings, adding he "vaguely remembers" talking to someone about the issue.

Owens later remembered speaking with County Attorney Plumlee.

When he was asked whether the discussion was about quorum court's right to set rules or ban taping, Owens replied he "did not recall the exact words of the conversation."

Owens said, however, "I will be more than happy to talk with anyone who challenges that a quorum court can set its own rules."

Owens asked to go off the record when asked if he had the authority to speak for the Association of Counties.

Little Rock Attorney John Tull, a member of the Arkansas Freedom of Information Coalition, said, "It's a first for me," when asked if he knew of other government bodies in Arkansas who had banned video taping of their meetings.

Tull said there is no specific language in the Freedom of Information Act regarding video taping. But the law and Attorney General opinions make it clear the public should have reasonable access to public meetings, including audio and video recordings, by the news media and individuals.

"The advice I give to officials and agencies when it comes to public information is, if you don't have anything to hide, then why the pushback?" said Tull. "To deny access gives the aura of conspiracy, by not letting people see or hear what you are doing."

The Fulton County Quorum Court made news statewide on Sunday, August 14, when the Arkansas Democrat Gazette ran an article about the court's decision and questioned whether it was legal or ethical.

Like The News, The Democrat Gazette could find no other city or county government body in the state that had banned video cameras in public meetings. In fact, it pointed out, government bodies all over the state welcome coverage, which is often broadcast on cable channels.

In the article, Mark Whitmore, chief legal counsel for the Association of Counties, called the dispute "a legitimate debate," because a camera at meetings could "impair a person's ability to do their job."

County attorney Plumlee was quoted as saying, if the "no video" rule is challenged, the county will fight it.

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