Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Drilling town eases restrictions on taping meetings Montrose borough passes resolution under pressure

MONTROSE, Pa  -- Free speech advocates lauded a resolution passed Monday by the Montrose Borough Council to ease restrictions on recording public meetings. They also vowed to continue to press for transparency in this small town, where shale gas development has become a primary issue.

Under legal pressure, the council passed a resolution Monday night to undo prohibitions on cameras that it had enacted last month amid intensifying coverage of development of the Marcellus Shale. The borough sits in the heart or Susquehanna County and just north of Dimock, a place that has earned a high profile in the national controversy over the safety and merits of hydraulic fracturing.

On Feb. 14, the borough council approved, without public comment, a policy that required video cameras to be unmanned and mounted on tripods in the back of the room. The new rule did not allow operators to adjust or move the cameras, even if they were blocked. The council crafted the prohibition a week after Vera Scroggins, a citizen journalist, tried to video record a meeting in which the council was scheduled to discuss a controversy over using the town’s water to supply people with contaminated wells in Dimock. In protest of being recorded, the entire council walked out of the meeting. 

The resolution passed Monday allows cameras and video recorders to be operated from chairs, and also designates an area for reporters with hand held or shoulder mounted cameras. “This is big a victory,” said Lisa Barr a citizen journalist and First Amendment scholar who challenged the Feb. 14 resolution with her sister, attorney Deborah Barr. “They know they have to behave, and they can’t run things in the dark. It makes it easier for journalists to do their job, both the mainstream and citizen journalists who are filling in the gaps.”

Scroggins, also an independent journalist, said she will continue to fight for rights of people to speak at the meeting. The council prohibits people who reside outside the borough from speaking without special permission from a council member, regardless of how they might be connected with business or interests relevant to local government affairs. This is especially relevant to the borough’s consideration of regional issues related to shale gas.

An agreement to settle the matter about cameras had been crafted in advance of Tuesday’s meeting by Deborah Barr and Patrick Boland, an attorney for the council, in front of Susquehanna County President Judge Kenneth Seamans. Still, passing the resolution Tuesday was not a quick and easy matter, as council members spent much of the meeting in executive session discussing the resolution with attorney Patrick Boland. 

Council members and Boland have refused to comment on the controversy.

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