President’s Column

Public board meeting?  Let ’em tape

By Betsy Russell

One thing that I love about the IDOG open records and meetings seminars that we continue to hold around the state is that, even though I’ve been attending them since 2004, I still always learn something.

This spring was no exception. At well-attended and highly informative seminars in McCall and Mountain Home, Idahoans for Openness in Government joined with Attorney General Lawrence Wasden and an array of sponsors to bring a fun, interactive session to local government officials, journalists and citizens on how to comply with our state’s open meetings and public records laws.

My attention was caught by a question about whether a public agency has to let people tape-record or video-record their meetings if they want to. This has occasionally been an issue around the state, including a case just within the past couple of years in which a school board tried to prevent the local TV station from taking video at its public meeting.

The answer: Let ’em tape. The latest version of the Idaho Attorney General’s “Idaho Open Meeting Law Manual,” which you can find online at www.idahopressclub.org or at the AG’s website, has this to say in its Q-and-A section (Question No. 14) about the law:

“Q: May qualifications or restrictions be placed on the public’s attendance at an open meeting?

A: A public agency may adopt reasonable rules and regulations to ensure the orderly conduct of a public meeting and to ensure orderly behavior on the part of those persons attending the meeting. In Nevens v. City of Chino, 44 Cal. Rptr. 50 (Cal. App. 1965), the court nullified a city council measure which prohibited the use of any tape recorders at city council meetings. While acknowledging that the city council had an absolute right to adopt and enforce rules and regulations necessary to protect its public meetings, the California court held that the rule prohibiting tape recorders was too arbitrary, capricious, restrictive and unreasonable. A similar holding might be reached if a governing body prohibits the use of cameras by news and television people, if their presence is not in fact disruptive of the conduct of the meeting. In any event, the governing standard is the reasonableness of the rules and regulations. Use of a timed agenda, ‘heavy gavel,’ and/or compliance with Robert’s Rules of Order or some other procedural guideline may serve to facilitate the orderly conduct of a public meeting.”

That’s right. It says it right there: Case law says a local board can’t prevent recording if it’s not disruptive of the conduct of the meeting. So, as Deputy Attorney General Brian Kane explained in McCall and Mountain Home, if a someone’s rigging up bright lights and shoving cameras in the board members’ faces for close-ups during the meeting, that would be disruptive. If someone’s standing in back with a video camera, that wouldn’t.

IDOG is our state’s non-profit, non-partisan coalition for open government, joining similar coalitions in more than 44 states; the Idaho Press Club is a member of IDOG, I’m its president and co-founder. IDOG’s mission is “Open government, supervised by an informed, engaged citizenry.”

Another hot topic at this spring’s seminars was “serial” meetings – when public board or commission members contact each other serially to deliberate on an issue rather than gather together, in an effort to evade the Idaho Open Meeting Law. Serial meetings violate the law.

I’d like to thank all the enthusiastic and helpful local sponsors and attendees in McCall and Mountain Home, the Attorney General’s office for its strong commitment to this program (we’ve now done nearly two dozen of these seminars in every part of the state, all featuring Attorney General Wasden), our awesome IDOG board, and our grant funders, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation through the National Freedom of Information Coalition.

As it says in the Idaho Open Meeting Law, “It is the policy of this state that the formation of public policy is public business and shall not be conducted in secret.” It’s great to see these words in action!

Betsy Z. Russell is a Boise-based reporter for The Spokesman-Review, and is the president of the Idaho Press Club.