Scenes of a crime?

A local mayor called police on a resident for filming council meetings, raising questions about transparency and public accountability.
By Jonathan Sher, The London Free Press

They’re camera-shy.

That’s one reason the mayor of a township west of London says he called cops last week to stop a critic from videotaping a council meeting.

For years, you see, no citizens attended council meetings at the tiny township office of Adelaide Metcalfe, pop. 3,000. They just didn’t.

But that changed after energy companies proposed building up to 70 wind turbines. Since January, dozens have packed a makeshift gallery and a young woman who once babysat the mayor’s kids has been setting up a camera and posting videos to YouTube.

Videographer Esther Wrightman kept calm during the clash Monday, asking police what law she was breaking and turning the camera off after a police officer said he would otherwise physically remove her.

But when the meeting ended and Wrightman made her way outside, her racing heart gave way to tears.

“I did cry — it just hit me what we have all tried to do, and what we didn’t have left — how powerless we were,” she recalls.

Mayor David Bolton defends his call to the cops, saying after weeks of videos being posted on YouTube, some council members had grown frightened of speaking at all, lest they say something stupid.

“That was preventing an open and full discussion,” Bolton said.

But that’s not how another council member, Kurtis Smith, sees it.

“If it is something that the individual doesn’t want recorded on video, it likely shouldn’t be said at all,” he told The Free Press. “Without the public engagement . . . council members cannot make informed decision.”

Smith says he had no problems with the videotaping and was caught off-guard when Bolton called police.

“I was not aware of the (mayor’s) plan,” he said.

The fight over wind turbines in rural Ontario played a big role last fall when voters turfed the McGuinty Liberals from those ridings in the provincial election.

But in Adelaide Metcalfe, the issue boiled over in January after council set building permit fees for turbines lower than critics had called for and did so at a meeting when that topic wasn’t on the public agenda.

The decision led Ontario’s Ombudsman’s office to suggest changes to the way council conducts business.

It also led to the tapings by Wrightman, a 31-year-old raising two kids and working at her parents’ nursery.

“This is the last resort for me to keep council accountable,” she said.

Wrightman taped three meetings without incident, but Bolton opened Monday’s gathering by ordering her to remove her camera. When she refused, he called police. Council waited 20 minutes for Middlesex OPP to arrive.

When Wrightman and others asked the officer what law was being broken, the officer left to phone headquarters, returning minutes later to say that by doing a prohibited activity she was trespassing — the encounter was captured on video and can be seen at lfpress.com. Bolton later explained that as a chair of a meeting he had the authority to forbid videotaping — advice he says he received from the township’s lawyer, London-based Barry Card.

For too long, the anti-turbine crowd had disrupted meetings by interrupting discussion and asking questions to councillors rather than through him, the mayor said.

At least some of the YouTube videos had been edited and he feared a group he believes has “an axe to grind” would some day edit the videos in a way that distorts what happened and creates propaganda.

Bolton said he feared more radical protests could be next.

“I didn’t want to have to (call police), but I didn’t know how else to deal with the situation,” said Bolton, who didn’t poll council members about how to deal with the camera.

But Wrightman says she’s simply calling for council to respect core democratic values. Her concerns extend beyond Bolton’s use of police to turn off the cameras.

She points out the mayor and deputy mayor each have sons who have signed leases with energy companies to erect turbines — a point Bolton doesn’t dispute.

The mayor seems baffled by a conflict over wind turbines that he says he personally opposes, but is obligated to deal with when it’s the Ontario government that approves them.

He also says township staff might tape meetings themselves: “I’m not opposed to videotaping meetings, but I want it done on our terms.”

— — —

FILMING COUNCIL MEETINGS 101

  • There are no province-wide rules on videotaping municipal council meetings.
  • Some councils create rules allowing some videotaping under procedural bylaws.
  • Others have no written rules; leave it to mayor’s discretion. Council can overrule the mayor.
  • Some councils have staff or hired hands tape meetings; Some let outsiders tape if not disruptive.
  • Taped meetings, available publicly, promote transparency.

Source: Oakville clerk Cathie Best, former president, Association of Municipal Managers, Clerks and Treasurers

E-mail jonathan.sher@sunmedia.ca, or follow JSheratLFPress on Twitter.

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Posted on May 13, 2012, in Meetings, Municipalities, Take Action. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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