Access to government meetings varies

  • Written by Briana Gerdeman

Smile for the camera — at Woodinville City Council meetings, signs warn citizens and politicians that audio and video is being recorded.

State law only requires written minutes as access to public meetings, not video or audio recordings, said Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government and a Kirkland City Council member.

“There are some politicians that are of the opinion that somehow videotaping changes the nature of their conversation. But my opinion is, does that mean they were doing something wrong before?” Nixon said. “Elected officials should always conduct themselves as if everything they do will be videotaped or on the front page of the newspaper,” he added.
“It seems like kind of a no-brainer in 2014,” said Nigel Herbig, the Kenmore City Council member who suggested Kenmore start recording video at council meetings — something the council approved last month.

Water District Commissioner Dale Knapinski, who wants the Woodinville Water District to start recording board meetings, expressed a similar sentiment: “The legal requirements for recording minutes is based on ages-old technology. Legislation lags technology,” he wrote.

Nixon added that the Open Public Meetings Act allows third-party video or audio recording in public meetings. That means any citizen — or elected official — can record a meeting, as long as they don’t disrupt the meeting.

Woodinville has a high level of public access to meetings. The city has recorded video of City Council meetings since 2007 and gives citizens a variety of viewing options: watching live on TV, watching online live or on demand, or downloading the video file. Recording meetings costs Woodinville $34,500 per year for 2013-2014, said Jennifer Kuhn, Woodinville’s city clerk and public records officer.

Other governing bodies in our area take different approaches, but most record meetings somehow. Bothell has recorded video of City Council meetings since 2001, and the videos can be viewed live or after the meeting on TV or online. The Northshore School District records audio on tape, and anyone can obtain it through a public records request. The King County Council has broadcast video of meetings since 1996 and now gives people the option to watch them online, live or on demand, as well.

Kenmore City Council
The Kenmore City Council decided last month to start recording video of council meetings at the beginning of 2015. Management intern Brett Lee, who’s responsible for implementing the video system, said recording video will be an upgrade to meeting access in two ways: video in addition to audio, and live access in addition to archived access.
Herbig campaigned last year on the issue of video recording meetings. As a citizen, he began attending council meetings in 2010 and live-tweeting them.

“I knew people who wanted to go to the meetings, but couldn’t make it to the meetings on a Monday night at 7,” he said. The audio files were “fairly bad quality,” were posted a day or two after the meeting and “are only useful if you can recognize everyone’s voices,” he said.

He brought up video recording at the council’s retreat in January. The council discussed it in June and July and ultimately approved, with a unanimous vote, a one-camera system with presentation integration.

The one-camera system will cost about $6,500 for the equipment plus about $2,100 annually for live access software. It’s cheaper than the two- and three-camera systems Kenmore considered, but more expensive than a low-quality stream using a webcam and YouTube, Lee wrote in his staff report.

“I think it keeps everybody on their best behavior on the dais,” Herbig said. “...We are doing the public’s work, and we should feel like the public is watching what we do.”

Woodinville Water District
At this year’s retreat in January, Knapinski suggested the Woodinville Water District’s Board of Commissioners start recording meetings.

Knapinski said it would benefit both elected officials and the public to have a record of the whole meetings, rather than edited minutes or news articles, especially since it’s difficult for many citizens to attend the meetings at 5 p.m. on Tuesday nights. Recording meetings isn’t about finding fault or exposing hidden agendas, he said; it would make citizens aware of the good things that go on at the Water District.

“The whole bottom line is, the meetings are for the public. That’s why we have them in a public place with the doors open,” he said, adding, “Most of the stuff, especially at the Water District, is incredibly boring, especially for the average person…. But the decisions affect their water bill.”

Commissioner Ed Cebron, the president of the board, recalled discussing it at the retreat.

“There was never a vote, but there was discomfort going in that direction of audio or video recording,” he said, noting that his opinion does not represent that of the whole board.

He believes that recording meetings could create ambiguity about what happened. The board’s discussion is just context for the motion, which is a formal decision.

“If the discussion deviated from that, you might have alternate interpretations,” Cebron said.

In fact, there’s already ambiguity from the meeting minutes. Debbie Rannfeldt, public information coordinator for the WWD, said the minutes from last year’s retreat didn’t mention the discussion of recording meetings, although Knapinski and Cebron both remembered it.

Ken Howe, general manager for the WWD, said the board has not yet adopted a policy on recording, but it will be discussed again at next year’s board retreat.

“The benefit is that we would have a recorded record of the meeting,” Howe wrote in an email. “The challenges I have seen from my experience is that recordings at times can reduce conversation, and can be used as a political tool by those speaking (either from the [dais] or the audience). I don’t think either of those two things move us towards better government.”

Knapinski has proposed to the board that he personally record meetings, but hasn’t done so since he doesn’t have the equipment and the meeting room doesn’t have good audio equipment, he said.

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