Camera Shy?

Camera Shy?

Task force considers barring video recordings of meetings.

During the task force meeting, a private citizen, Bruce Bennett, brought a personal video camera and was taping the proceedings. Bennett’s wife, Jody, is a member of the task force.

The moderator of the meeting, Patricia Stevens, brought up the issue of the taping. Until Stevens discussed it, no member of the task force had mentioned it.

Stevens said she had an opinion from the Office of the County Attorney stating that the committee could, at its discretion, opt not to allow people to videotape the meeting. The taping, Stevens said, might make some people uncomfortable and not willing to be as forthcoming with their opinions.

Bennett stated that he was taping the proceedings for his own private records, but that he would share the tape with others, including task force members who might have missed a meeting, upon request.

At least four reporters from various local newspapers were present, and it was never suggested that any of them be restricted from reporting what transpired and publishing it, including directly quoting and photographing members of the task force.

Stevens called for a sense of the task force in restricting Bennett’s taping and determined, without a formal vote, that the task force did not want him to tape the meeting.

A reporter from the Connection Newspapers informed Bennett of his rights under Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act. Specifically, Section 2.2-3707 Paragraph H of the Virginia Code states: "Any person may photograph, film, record or otherwise reproduce any portion of a meeting required to be open to the public." The section goes on to state that the body may establish rules for the taping to ensure that it does not interfere with the business of the public body.

The Code (Section 2.2-3701 "Definitions") defines a public body essentially any government entity (such as the Board of Supervisors), "or any other entity however designated, of the public body created to perform delegated functions of the body or to advise the public body."

The task force was formed through an action of the Board of Supervisors. Earlier in the meeting it had been established that the task force has been set up to advise both the Fairfax County Planning Commission (also a public body under the law) and the Board of Supervisors. The code goes on to state: "It shall not exclude any such committee, subcommittee or entity because it has private sector citizens or members."

"He absolutely can record the meeting," said Maria Everett executive director of the Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council. "There’s not a nuance about it at all. Anybody can record a meeting." The advisory council was set up by the state legislature to provide advice and interpretations about Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act. These opinions do not carry the force of law.

Everett said that while the task force may opt to set parameters for where and how an individual could set up a camera, it may not forbid the taping.

Further, those guidelines may not act as a de facto way of preventing recording the meeting, Everett said. "To me, that’s a way of doing indirectly what you can’t do directly." The task force is a public body as defined by the Virginia Code, Everett said.

Bennett said that after he was told he could not make the tape and before he read a copy of the Freedom of Information Act he was about to leave. "I would have stopped taping," he said in a later interview. "I was actually going to offer to erase the tape and walk away and not come back."

Stevens said that she would seek another opinion from the Office of the County Attorney. Bennett continued to tape the proceedings.

The Connection filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Office of the County Attorney for the opinion which Stevens referenced and for her request for the opinion. The response to that request had not been received and was not due until after the Connection’s deadline.

Additionally, over the course of the meeting, Stevens suggested that an outside consultant may or may not need to be retained to assist with later proceedings. A member of the task force asked what type of budget the consultant might have.

Supervisor Joan DuBois (R-Dranesville) stated that the task force had no budget. However, she said that if the consultant needed money, something might be able to be arranged. She did not specify if any funding might include public funds.