If you ever get the urge to record a meeting of Coplay borough council in Lehigh County, be warned that you will have to place your recording device on a designated press table in council chambers and announce that you are recording the meeting.
Those new rules unanimously were approved by council Tuesday night.
Johanna Billings, editor of Whitehall-Coplay Press, said the issue came up because at the last meeting, she was told she could not record council meetings.
On Tuesday, borough solicitor James Preston said there is an absolute right for anyone to record a public meeting, but council has a right to pass reasonable restrictions and regulations concerning the use of recording devices. For example, he said it can designate a location where recording devices must be placed. He said it also can require anyone to let council know before he or she records a meeting.
Preston said disclosing that you are recording is not asking for permission, but people at a meeting should be entitled to the courtesy of knowing they are being recorded.
During the meeting, Billings asked if borough council records its meetings and was told it does. She then asked: “Have you announced at every meeting that you are recording so everyone here knows?”
Many local municipalities that record their public meetings routinely do make such announcements, either verbally or at the top of their written agendas. And some journalists who cover meetings routinely do use voice recorders, without placing them in a specific area or advising a municipality they are being used.
Preston initially suggested council might want to just discuss the matter further, but council president Louis Bodish wanted to act on the solicitor’s suggestions immediately.
One woman in the audience at Tuesday’s meeting objected to Billings placing her voice recorder on top of the podium where members of the public stand to address borough council. She claimed someone could bump it off the podium and then be responsible to pay for it.
Bodish indicated Billings had been asked to move her recorder but refused to do so.
I think we’re making a mountain out of a mole hill,” said council member William Leiner. “I don’t care if everyone in the room has a recorder and a video camera. It’s an open public meeting and people have a right to do that.”
Preston also addressed the Sunshine Act’s impact on council’s committees, which is another issue where Billings and council have had disagreements. Billings said she got First Amendment legal advice from the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association.
The solicitor said there is no absolute rule that all committee meetings must be held in public. “That is simply not in the law.” He added: “That is true of council meetings as well.”
Preston said one of the things committees can do outside a public meeting is gather information. But he said they can’t deliberate or take official action outside a public meeting Yet Preston also said if a committee makes a recommendation to full council, “I don’t think they violated the act. I think they are entitled to do that. If I’m wrong, whatever action was taken can be reversed.”
He said state law defines a public meeting as a gathering of a quorum for the purpose of taking official action or deliberation.
In other business, council member Joseph Groller said the tentative 2013 Coplay budget would raise property taxes $31 for an average homeowner in the borough.
Council plans to take final action on that budget during a special meeting at 7 p.m. Dec. 17.
Its next workshop meeting is 7 p.m. Dec. 4 and its next regular meeting is 7 p.m. Dec. 11.