Monday, March 5, 2012

Council to revisit restrictions on recording meetings

The right for citizens to chronicle public meetings will be revisited tonight by Montrose Borough Council, which is scheduled to vote on easing restrictions after a legal intervention by a citizen reporter.

That reporter, Lisa Barr, attempted to stream the 7 p.m. meeting online, but had technical difficutlies. 

The controversy reflects tensions in this small town in the middle of a burgeoning natural gas field, 10 miles south of Pennsylvania’s border with upstate New York. Montrose is just north of Dimock, which has gotten national coverage due to well water contamination associated with drilling, and a subsequent investigation by the federal EPA into dangers associated with fracking.  Uncomfortable with related news coverage, Montrose Borough council members abruptly got up and left a meeting on Feb. 8, when citizen reporter Vera Scoggins came to the meeting with a video recorder. At the next meeting, on Feb. 14, council approved, without public comment, a policy that requires video cameras to be unmanned and mounted on tripods in the back of the room. The new rule does not allow operators to adjust or move the cameras, even if they are blocked. The relationship between council members and media has been hostile. PaHompage reporter Joe Holden reported that he was pushed and shoved from behind by councilmen Sean Granahan and Craig Reimel as he stood outside the meeting hall with a microphone and camera in an attempt to get council members to elaborate on their policy. Police presence has been heavy at the meetings crowded by supporters and opponents of shale gas development, and in some instances police have physically enforced the policy on cameras.

Following the Feb. 14 meeting Barr, a freelance reporter from Oneonta, filed for a preliminary injunction against the borough. Represented by her sister, attorney Deborah Barr, Lisa Barr argued that the rule would place onerous restrictions on those trying to chronicle the council’s meetings Those meetings deal with issues of overwhelming public interest, such as distribution of clean water from the borough to residents in Dimock with polluted wells.  The conflict -- scheduled for a Feb. 27 hearing in front of Susquehanna County President Judge Kenneth Seamans -- was resolved beforehand during a meeting with the parties in the judge’s chambers. A key point of the agreement: Cameras and video recorders would be allowed to be used from chairs. Additionally, an area would be designated in which reporters with hand held or shoulder mounted cameras were allowed.

The council has to approve the measure before it is effective. Meanwhile, other issues remain unresolved concerning the right of people to participate at the meetings. Vera Scroggins said the agreement between Barr and the Council did not go far enough to ease restrictions on speech. She cited another new rule, also enacted on Feb. 14, that prevents 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.

It remains to be seen whether the council will pass reached between Barr and Patrick Boland, an attorney representing the borough, and, whether it will affect the tone of the meetings, which has been tense. 

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