The Herald, Sharon, Pa.

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June 7, 2014

Chief challenges recording at town’s public meeting

SANDY LAKE — A Sandy Lake council meeting took a turn focusing on the public’s rights Wednesday night.

Police Chief Donald Oakes stopped a reporter from recording the meeting after stating that members of council must be notified prior to being recorded.

“They’re wrong. It’s really that simple,” said Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for Pennsylvania Newspaper Association.

The order violates the Sunshine Act, which allows recording without notice during public meetings.

“The Sunshine Act guarantees that anyone attending can record,” she said.

Oakes interrupted discussion on a petition to confront the journalist.

The petition accused Oakes, who is in charge of enforcing borough codes, of failing to enforce several ordinance and code violations over the span of several years.

“Why would someone be so, so protective and so boisterous to not let something be recorded?” resident Dick Snyder later asked.

Snyder presented the petition.

Recordings can’t be taken “without telling us,” Oakes said.

Snyder said the real cause was Oakes trying to protect the council.

“He was trying to protect being trapped by a comment,” Snyder said.

At the end of the meeting, Oakes said that the recording of the public meeting without notice violated wiretap laws and was a felony.

“That is completely wrong,” Melewsky said. “It’s a fundamental misunderstanding of (the laws).”

Wiretap laws dictate that there must be consent to record in situations when a person could reasonably expect privacy.

“There is no wiretap issue here because there is no expectation of privacy during a public meeting,” she said.

Because wiretap laws come into affect in private settings and the Sunshine Act applies to public settings, the two should never conflict, Melewsky said.

Oakes felt that it was an issue because the council has previously had members holding recorders under the table during meetings without others knowing, he said.

However, the Sunshine Act guarantees the right to record not only to the press, but the public as well.

“The law seeks to promote public attendance and participation,” Melewsky said.

Local governing bodies are entitled to issue ordinances regulating recording, but they can’t interfere with the state allowance to record public meetings.

Local policies “do not trump state law,” Melewsky said.

Orders like providing notice in advance and keeping recording devices in certain areas of the room do not stand against the state regulations.

“I think those are all things that are unreasonable and conflict with the intent,” she said.

Any ordinance regulating recording must go through all the proper proceedings of a community and orders to oblige to rules cannot be issued at a meeting without the process being completed.

Melewsky advised that anyone ordered to stop recording should do so and make it a civil matter, rather than having to go through the process of getting a felony charge thrown out in court.

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