The odyssey is over. The Town of Phillipsburg now has a law that places guidelines on the videotaping of council meetings.
By a 5-0 vote Tuesday night, council wrapped up a process that has been months in the making and has brought into question its legality under the First Amendment.
The restrictions placed on the videotaping were compartmentalized into three sections in the amendment – on tripods, handheld and other provisions – and were arrived at after a previous ordinance was scrapped after citizens and WFMZ-TV news director Brad Rinehart raised questions about their legality during a September 4th council meeting. Council then reworked the law and that revised version was first approved at their October 2 meeting.
The ordinance allows any member of the public seated in the audience to utilize a handheld camera. However, the portion of the ordinance that pertains to the use of a camera on a tripod states that “no more than two video recording devices at a time shall be permitted at a Town Council meeting, exclusive of any video recording device utilized by the Town.”
If more than two cameras wish to record the proceedings, the ordinance states that there will be a “drawing” by the town clerk or acting clerk, to ascertain which camera will be permitted to record.
In addition, the ordinance states that any video recording devices must be set up prior to the start of the meeting and cannot be moved during the course of the meeting. In addition these devices are also prohibited to start recording until the meeting has been called to order, and must cease upon its conclusion. Should someone not comply with the ordinance, the council president can ultimately ask the individual to remove the video equipment from the room.
That one provision of the law alone was enough to light the fire of one Phillipsburg resident. Near the conclusion of Tuesday night's meeting resident Blaine Fehley, who videotapes each meeting for a website with a camera on a tripod, addressed council members with truculent audacity. Akin to water in a pot about to boil over, Fehley told council members expect trouble at the next meeting.
“You can’t tell me when I can turn my camera on and when I can turn my camera off,” Fehley said. “I’m telling you guys I’m going to violate it."
Then Fehley noted the acoustics in the front of the room were not sufficient to his position in the back of the room.
“If I can’t hear I’m going to get closer to the mike,” he admonished. “...I don’t care if I get arrested.”
To which Council President Randy Piazza replied with two words.
Under the “other provisions” section approved Tuesday night, a provision states “members of the press are free to conduct interviews of Town Officials, or any other persons, in the hall prior to, or at the conclusion of, the meeting.” In the section that examines handheld equipment, the ordinance states that the “handheld video or recording equipment is permitted in the audience seating area only.”
In other business, council voted 5-0 to authorize the razing of a property at 397 Center St. The property in question has been a longtime nemesis to the township, according to Councilman Bernie Fey.
“It’s an absolute eyesore,” he noted.
In addition, Mayor Harry Wyandt noted that the Halloween parade is scheduled for 3 p.m. on October 28th, and that the town's Trick-or-Treat night is from 5 to 7:30 p.m. on Halloween night.