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Thursday, May 5, 2016

To Tape or Not To Tape - Fulton County Quorum Court Got It Wrong

Thursday, September 1, 2011

On Sunday, Aug. 14, Fulton County made news all over the state when the Arkansas Democrat Gazette featured an article about our Quorum Court's decision not to allow its meetings to be videotaped by the news media or individuals.

I posted The News story about the vote on the Write for Arkansas web site, which attracts readers from all over the country.

The following week, the story spread to Virginia and beyond, when the Virginia Coalition for Open Government posted it on its web site.

Why is this one vote by a government body, in an isolated rural county, big news?

Well, Fulton County Quorum Court apparently became the first city or county body in the state of Arkansas to outlaw videotaping of a government meeting.

It is also one of few government bodies in the nation to take a "no video" stance.

Arkansas' Freedom of Information Act requires that government business be conducted in open, public meetings.

Quorum court members never say a word when The News records their meetings with an audio recorder or takes photographs, as it decides issues.

So why is videotape, which records audio and takes moving pictures at the same time, any different?

According to three opinions of the Arkansas Attorney General, there is no difference. The news media and individuals have the right to quietly videotape government meetings, just as they are allowed to use audio recorders and take photographs.

In voting against videotaping, a quorum court member said the Attorney General Opinions are just that, opinions, not a law.

That is true, but the opinions issued in 1977, 1983 and 2010 have been accepted without challenge, because state law is crystal clear: government meetings are public meetings and the news media and individuals have a right to attend and document the meetings through written notes, photographs, audiotapes and videotapes.

Quorum court has been told by its legal advisors that it has the right to set its own rules, and that a video camera at its meetings could have a "chilling effect," stopping citizens and quorum court members from freely speaking their views at meetings.

That advice is a little silly on two counts.

One: citizens are not allowed to speak at all at quorum court meetings, unless they ask in advance to be placed on the agenda.

Two: Being on quorum court is a very public job, where tough, controversial decisions are made in open meetings. If a Justice of the Peace, who represents a district of people, is intimidated by a video camera, he or she is in the wrong business.

"All we wanted to do was be able to hear the meetings and tell who was saying what," Nancy Cole told The News, expressing sadness that an innocent gesture had blown up into a big controversy.

While few people used to attend quorum court meetings, Nancy and Jack Cole are among a growing number of citizens who now regularly attend to follow county business.

The Coles and others say it is hard to hear what is going on as the quorum court discusses and deliberates.

That is why the Coles decided to set their video camera up in the jury box at the edge of the Circuit Courtroom and let it roll. They could then go home and watch the meeting with the sound turned up loud and see exactly who was speaking. If someone could not attend the meeting, they could share their copy to view.

So why is it so hard to see and hear what's going on at a Fulton County Quorum Court meeting?

Quorum court sits around a long, rectangular table placed near the judge's bench. Three Justices of the Peace and the County Clerk have their backs to the audience and partially block the view of members sitting across from them.

The audience sits quite a distance away, in an area intended for circuit court defendants and spectators.

County Treasurer Calvin "Buster" Smith verified the hearing difficulty when asked by quorum court, after the "no video" vote, if he had any suggestions for spending cuts.

"I can't hear all of what you are saying," Smith replied from the audience. That comment touched off laughter and "That's-what-we're-talking-about!" cheers and jeers from many in the crowd.

Some Justices of the Peace may fear a video camera or two will give them the stutters, but they could easily make their public meeting more accessible with a simple change or two:

* How about putting two rectangular tables side by side and move them closer to the audience? Facing the audience would make it easier for citizens to hear what is going on.

* How about adding a public comment period at the beginning or end of their meetings, as many government bodies do, to allow citizen participation?

* How about adding a microphone system, as one JP suggested, when the vote not to allow videotaping was discussed?

With money tight, the real solution to this "controversy," is easy: face the audience and speak up -- and take a new vote on the "no video" ban.

Quorum court members were given bad advice when the taping issue first came up.

Justices of the peace were told, "We have to adopt a rule to either allow or prohibit video recording devices in our quorum court."

The truth is, quorum court did NOT have to do anything.

It could have welcomed video cameras or ignored them, just as it allows photographs and audiotaping, without question.

Fulton County rarely makes state or national news and, when it does, it should be for something we can be proud of.

To be the only government body in the state, and one of a few in the nation, to forbid videotaping, is not good publicity.

The decision makes Fulton County government look backward ("We don't trust those danged video things!") and secretive ("We're tired of these people (citizens) poking their noses in our business!").

Fulton County's image is not going to improve any if a lawsuit is filed to challenge the "no video" rule or legislation is proposed at the capitol, because of the county vote, to specifically include videotaping in the Freedom of Information Act.

The Fulton County Quorum Court needs to take a deep breath and a new vote. This time, voting to support open government by allowing the news media or individuals to videotape its meetings, just like most of the rest of America does.