Tag Archive | "videotaping"

Sag Harbor School Board Has No Plans to Revisit Videotaping Policy

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By Tessa Raebeck

The Sag Harbor Board of Education’s narrow 4-3 decision last month to no longer include the public comment portions from the videos of its meetings broadcast on its website, LTV and SEA-TV, has raised criticism from a small but vocal segment of the school community.

The school board will continue to offer the two public input sessions at its meetings, and the rest of the public meetings will be recorded, with the tape starting after public input one, during which the public can address the board on issues related to the agenda, and stopping just prior to public input two, which is held at the end of the meeting and allows members of the public to bring up topics that are not on the agenda.

School board President Theresa Samot, who did not vote in support of the measure, said Wednesday, “The board has had no further discussion on the videotaping policy.  At this point, videotaping is not an agenda item on our upcoming agenda.”

During a six-month trial period from July to December 2014, and much discussion prior to that, board members cited the legal advice of school attorney Thomas Volz, who members of the board said, initially recommended against taping altogether due to liability issues that could arise.

When reached by phone on Tuesday, January 20, Mr. Volz said he is not authorized by the district to speak on the topic.

While discussing the policy in December, school board member Sandi Kruel cited instances that occurred during the trial period in which she felt libelous or slanderous statements were made.

“They were derogatory comments about employees of the district or disparaging comments about the work that they did,” Ms. Kruel said Tuesday, referring to six specific interactions that were also observed by The Sag Harbor Express over the course of the trial period.

Although one example given by Ms. Kruel was of a parent applauding a particular administrator’s work, the others referred to specific criticisms of various aspects of the district, such as a particular academic department or community outreach tool.

One instance occurred during public input two on September 29, 2014, when a community member referred to a particular administrative position and questioned a raise given to that administrator, who was in attendance, asking the board and Superintendent Katy Graves several questions, including, “Why is this person so valuable? That’s what I want to get at.”

When asked about the criteria used to determine why the raise was needed, as well as, “How many years’ experience does this person have?” Ms. Graves replied, “When we start talking about an exact person and their exact raises and why we did those, then we’re talking about personnel issues.”

Administrators’ salary increases are public information, and in this case, the raise was included in an agenda issued by the board. However, the discussion of the employment history of a particular person, as well as matters leading to their appointment, employment or promotion, are to be conducted during executive sessions, rather than public meetings, under the New York State Open Meetings Law.

According to the district, the recording of that September 29 meeting is not available online for viewing “due to a technical issue.”

If that interaction had been recorded and broadcast, Ms. Kruel said, the board “would have had to pay the attorney $3,000 to tell me that I can’t broadcast it and then I would have gotten slapped with a Freedom of Information or freedom of speech lawsuit.”

Ms. Kruel added she would be fine with having public input one recorded, as it addresses agenda items, but that public input two often becomes a “forum for someone’s opinion to slander either the board or an employee of the district.”

“I think we worry about all kinds of things for no particularly good reason,” Robert Freeman, the executive director at New York’s Department of State Committee on Open Government, said on Tuesday. While the board is not legally required to record or broadcast its meetings, he said, “I would question the wisdom of limiting what is broadcast for a simple reason—any member of the public under the open meeting law has the right to audio record, video record, or broadcast an open meeting so long as the use of the equipment is not disruptive or obtrusive.”

“So, even though the board of education might not broadcast or even record the public commentaries, anybody else can, and anybody else who does so can post it on his or her own website. [The Sag Harbor Board of Education] can do what they’re doing, but again, I question the wisdom of the limitation.”

As required by a 2011 amendment to the Open Meetings Law, the school board has on several occasions welcomed others to record and broadcast the public meetings on their own, with the expressed intention of absolving the district from its liability concerns.

Mr. Freeman said concerns of libel lawsuits if the board were to broadcast a slanderous statement made by a member of the public are “wrong, because it’s a public forum. There are cases out of Long Island which indicate that what is said and heard during open meetings is public. Why would they be concerned?”

“The reality, at least in my opinion, is that the board gives itself a degree of protection if it records and plays the whole thing,” Mr. Freeman continued. “If they don’t, somebody can record a portion that [the board does] not and say that this is completely accurate, even though that may not be so.”

The fears of libel lawsuits are largely unfounded according to Mr. Freeman, but a non-legal concern remains: if the board records all public comments, it will inevitably televise statements that are, more often than not, negative reactions to both the board itself and to its employees.

“We’re the only school district in all of Suffolk County who have come in under the tax cap every single year. We have never decreased program, we have never laid off employees, we’ve actually increased program—and [people are] sitting here worrying about if we’re going to let you rip apart a school employee or another board member on video camera,” said Ms. Kruel.

LTV Director Asks Sag Harbor School Board to Reconsider Broadcast Limitations

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A still shot of the video broadcast of the Sag Harbor Board of Education's December 9 meeting.

A still shot of the video broadcast of the Sag Harbor Board of Education’s December 9 meeting.

By Tessa Raebeck

In the wake of the Sag Harbor Board of Education’s decision last month to stop broadcasting the public comment portions of its meetings, LTV Executive Director Seth Redlus on Monday urged the board to reconsider its ruling, saying its liability concerns were unfounded.

“The action of editing out the public comment portion of your meeting clouds the very transparency this board sought to provide by offering the coverage,” Mr. Redlus told the board.

In light of several resignations in the spring of 2013, the school board faced criticism over a perceived lack of transparency and spent much of the last school year discussing a proposed policy to videotape and broadcast its public meetings. A six-month trial period was enacted over the summer and expired on December 31. During evaluation of that trial, board member David Diskin, who led the initial push for videotaping, suggested continuing to videotape the meetings, but omitting the two public input sessions from the tape, citing liability concerns voiced by the district’s attorney, Thomas Volz.

In December, Mr. Diskin and fellow board members Susan Kinsella, Sandi Kruel and Tommy John Schiavoni voted for a policy that does not broadcast public input, with Board President Theresa Samot, Vice President Chris Tice and Diana Kolhoff in the minority. That policy went into effect January 1 and was in use at the board’s meeting on Monday, January 12, during which Technology Director Scott Fisher stopped the recording prior to public comment.

The board members who voted not to broadcast public comments did so, they said because they were concerned about the district’s liability if it granted an unchecked public forum. Prior to that vote, Ms. Kruel said she counted six instances in which libelous statements were made by the public during the videotaping trial, and said it was too risky for the school district to broadcast an open forum. Mr. Schiavoni added it could affect programming because of the liability issues, should lawsuit costs mount. But Ms. Tice, Ms. Samot and Ms. Kolhoff said that was a risk they were willing to take.

The videos are taped by the school district and available on its website, but also distributed to the local government access stations LTV in East Hampton and SEA-TV in Southampton to be shown on television.

In reaction to the new policy, Mr. Redlus told the board Monday that LTV would still broadcast the meetings for the school board, but would inform its viewers at the beginning and end of the broadcasts that the meetings are independently produced and edited by the district rather than LTV. He believes the liability concerns expressed by some members of the board are misinformed, he said.

“LTV has videotaped government meetings for 30 years, and in that time, we have amassed a great deal of working knowledge about how best to capture these public events and present them to the community that we serve. One rule which has stood the test of time has become our prime directive: under no circumstances does LTV edit government meetings,” he said in a statement to the board made during public input.

“They are presented to the public in the very same way that they occurred in real life. That one simple rule has allowed the community to trust what they see when they tune in to our channel. While other media may be constrained by the time or space available to them, government access television shows every moment of what occurred—allowing viewers to make up their own minds with no editorial content,” he continued.

Editing meetings, Mr. Redlus added, is in the best interest of neither the board nor the public, as the board’s interpretation of issues raised in public comments is also not broadcast, comments made often reflect the opinion of a larger group, who may instead come to the board individually should they not see their questions answered en masse, and “there is no more liability to a board when public comment is broadcast than if that public comment is made only to an open meeting.”

Broadcasting the entire meeting, he concluded, may actually lower liability as there is a definitive recording of who said what.

Mr. Schiavoni asked Mr. Redlus whether LTV would consider taping the meetings itself, an option that had been floated by the board during earlier discussions.

“With the policy in place we won’t tape meetings,” Mr. Redlus replied, adding that when the board had originally considered documenting meetings, LTV had offered to cover a percentage of the cost based on how many East Hampton Cablevision subscribers live in the district (versus Southampton subscribers who are covered by SEA-TV), “but the school district never provided those numbers.”

In other school news, Theresa Roden and three girls from the i-tri program visited the board to ask it to consider Sag Harbor’s participation in the program, which is already active in the Springs, Montauk, and Southampton school districts. With the slogan, “transformation through triathlon,” the program aims to empower young girls through nutrition classes, self-esteem workshops, and physical and mental training to compete in a triathlon, held in July.

The program is free of charge for every participant, and asks the school district to provide a space to hold in-school sessions and possibly nighttime nutrition sessions, support from relevant personnel such as guidance counselors, and possibly transportation, if events cannot be housed in Sag Harbor.

Ms. Roden said in addition to anecdotal evidence that girls do better behaviorally and academically after the program, Jennifer Gatz, a local PhD candidate, conducted a thesis that found participants in the i-tri program, which combines fitness training, mentoring and self-esteem education, show an increased aptitude for science.

“There’s nothing I’ve experienced better than running through a finish line and having everyone you know and love cheer you on,” said Anna Rafferty, an eighth grade participant from Springs School.

The board appeared to be very supportive of bringing the program to Sag Harbor, and will vote on it at its next business meeting on January 26 when it meets at 6 p.m. for a budget workshop in the Pierson Library before convening a business meeting at 7:30.

Sag Harbor School Board Votes to Stop Broadcasting Public Input

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On Monday, the Sag Harbor Board of Education voted not to film and air the public input portions of its meetings, which were included in the December 9 video broadcast, still shot shown above.

On Monday, the Sag Harbor Board of Education voted against airing the public input portions of its meetings, which were included in the December 9 video broadcast, above.

By Tessa Raebeck

In an effort to avoid rebroadcasting public statements that could lead to liability issues for the school district down the road, the Sag Harbor Board of Education in a 4-3 vote on Monday agreed to continue videotaping its meetings, but to omit the public input sessions from the broadcast.

The board last spring implemented a six-six-month trial period during which it taped its meetings from start to finish, then broadcast them on the LTV and SEA-TV channels in East Hampton and Southampton, respectively, as well as online on the television stations’ websites and the district website.

The board adopted the pilot program to make its meetings more accessible following a call from some members of the public for increased transparency.

The trial period expires on December 31. When it was first enacted in April, the board agreed to review the policy at or before its December 15 meeting. To enact a policy, the board must hold a first reading, at which suggestions for amending the policy may be made. It then holds a second reading with those changes at a separate meeting. Following the second reading, the board votes on whether to approve the policy as is or continue revising it.

The videotaping policy was reviewed in a meeting on December 9, during which several changes were made, including altering the language to say the board would videotape and broadcast all “regularly scheduled” meetings and workshops on the board’s calendar, rather than all its “public meetings.”

This change was intended to avoid having Technology Director Scott Fisher, who spends over two hours setting up and distributing each broadcast in addition to the time spent attending the meetings, come in for a special meeting, which are generally brief and called for urgent matters, such as approving the hiring of a substitute teacher. Special meetings, often tucked in the middle of executive sessions that are not open to the public, are not scheduled ahead of time.

The other suggestion made last week—and approved on Monday—drew criticism from several parents in attendance and on social media. Board member David Diskin, citing liability concerns of rebroadcasting public statements over which the board has no control, proposed starting recording after the first public input session at the start of the meeting and ending taping after the second public input period at the end of the meeting.

To speak during the first public input period, speakers  must sign up ahead of time to address a specific issue on the agenda. Speakers are allowed to address any issue during the second public input session at the end of the meeting.

By not broadcasting public input, critics say the board is censoring the right of the public to bring up issues that are important to the school community, but may not be included by the board on an agenda. Proponents on the board said school attorney Thomas Volz had advised them against taping meetings altogether due to liability issues that could easily arise, and that while they would continue to televise the board meeting itself, broadcasting an open forum accessible to anyone in the public is too risky for the school district.

On Monday, those who voted to not include public input were David Diskin, Susan Kinsella, Sandi Kruel and Tommy John Schiavoni. Board President Theresa Samot, Vice President Chris Tice and Diana Kolhoff voted to continue taping the public.

“In the end, it may affect programming because of the liability issues,” said Mr. Schiavoni of his reasoning, adding that if the board were to continue broadcasting public input, it should consider having an attorney present during it. He echoed others’ sentiment that the board is too at-risk if statements made at the podium are rebroadcast, but welcomed any other party to tape the public portions of the meetings.

“I feel like the risk that we take by broadcasting statements that are made by the public is small with regard to the reward of having the public hear what is being brought to us,” countered Ms. Kolhoff. “I feel like people that can’t be here are just as interested in what we discuss as what people bring to the table in public input one and two.”

“I feel like we have to start with a bit of trust and if that trust is violated, maybe we revisit it. I just feel like the public input piece is important enough that I’m willing to risk the small chance that we open ourselves to liability,” she added.

“That is a risk,” Ms. Tice said, “but I do feel like we have had very productive public inputs. Public input two [is] where questions are asked that don’t show up on a formal agenda, but are questions that a lot of people in the community have.”

Ms. Kinsella, who has never been a fan of videotaping, reminded the board that having public input sessions at all is not mandatory, but an option chosen by the board.

“We have done this trial basis, we have had the policy violated, so how many times are we going to put ourselves at risk?” asked Ms. Kruel, who added that since the trial period started in July, she has counted six instances in which libelous statements were made during public input.

The public input sessions from Monday’s meetings were taped and broadcasted, as the terms of the six-month trial period are still in effect through the end of this month.

The next school board meeting will be a budget workshop and educational meeting starting at 6 p.m. on Monday, January 12, in the Pierson library.

Sag Harbor School Board to Videotape its Meetings

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By Tessa Raebeck

After months of debate, the Sag Harbor Board of Education on Tuesday approved the first reading of a policy to implement a six-month trial of videotaping its board meetings.

The policy, which requires a second reading before it is officially adopted, calls for the trial period to run from July 1 through December 31.

After forming a subcommittee to explore the matter that recommended the trial, the board met with Thomas Volz, the school attorney, and Kathy Beatty, the school’s public relations representative, in order to examine the options—and possible liabilities—of adopting the new procedure.

Mr. Volz wrote the policy, which could be amended when it is put before the board for a second reading on April 7.

Citing the lengthy process, BOE President Theresa Samot stressed the importance of making a “data-driven decision.”

Sandi Kruel, a longtime member of the school board, said the issue has “really grown to something that really made me sad,” due to her perception that there had been a public backlash directed at the board for not reaching a decision sooner. Ms. Kruel noted both Ms. Beatty and Mr. Volz had recommended against the district taping its meeting as of the more than 70 school districts each represents, only two tape their meetings.

“As a board member,” Ms. Kruel said, “as someone who was elected to this position, for me to be able to vote with 100-percent conviction tonight, I needed to do my due diligence and through that, I was very saddened by the way it transpired in our community. Moving forward, I will always do our due diligence.”

Board vice president Chris Tice, who was on the committee that recommended the trial, said although she does still support the measure, she was glad the board had thoroughly weighed the issue.

“Some districts actually saw reduction in attendance at meetings” after implementing such policy, she said. “The last thing we would want to do is reduce the number of people here.”

“I respect your desire to get information,” David Diskin, the BOE member who first called for videotaping, said to Ms. Kruel, adding he was “still okay with it.”

Board member Susan Kinsella said while she was hesitant about taping meetings, she would stand with the board in supporting the measure. “I just hope we’re all still willing to speak our minds,” she said.

Calling himself a “fairly aggressive proponent for it,” board member Daniel Hartnett said, “I think we’ve thoroughly vetted it.”

Scott Fisher, the district’s director of technology, assured those in attendance Tuesday that community members who address the board from the podium during public input will not be on camera, nor will students who attend meetings. The camera will only be focused on the board and perhaps also the projector, which often displays presentations.

John Battle, a member of the community who has called on the district to increase transparency by taping its meetings at nearly every board meeting, thanked the board for passing the first reading, as well as for taking the time to examine the undertaking in-depth.

“It’s a lot easier to be an advocate than a responsible board member,” he said.