It’s not every day the business of the Phillipsburg Town Council spurs debate on the protections afforded by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.
Yet, in a way, that’s exactly what has happened, whether intentioned or not, thanks to an ordinance that was before council September 4th that would have placed restrictions on the videotaping and recording of town council meetings that raised concerns among some town residents and the press, including WFMZ-TV, about the legislation's potential ramifications and legality.
Thanks to those concerns, council tabled the issue to further discuss and rework the ordinance, which they did Tuesday night at their regularly scheduled workshop session.
Each of the five members spoke Tuesday night at various lengths about their intentions with the legislation. The most vocal was Councilman John Lynn who was perplexed at how, in his view, things had gotten blow out of proportion from their original context.
“The whole situation irritates me,” said Lynn. “Because it got down to the fact that we were not going to allow the public to videotape council. We never said that.”
The ordinance on last week’s agenda, in part, stated that no more than two video recording devices that utilized tripods or stands could be used to tape meetings and that cameras would be prohibited from panning the room and must remain focused at all times on council.
Last week town resident Tom Bush suggested the ordinance amounted to paraonid strong-arming tactics aimed at muzzling free speech, particularly that of resident Blaine Fehley, who videotapes and posts every council meeting on a website and who has long been a voracious critic of council’s actions and integrity on a spate of issues. Bush called the initial ordinance’s motivations “petty” and “thin-skinned.”
Lynn addressed those concerns Tuesday night.
“The only thing we wanted to eliminate is providing an opportunity for people to tape recordings prior to the meeting or after the meeting to humiliate people,” he said.
On August 21st Fehley and other town voters submitted a petition that Lynn said he agreed with, but were almost identical to the town’s original ordinance, save for three sections, which council generally did not think were warranted Tuesday night legally. Tuesday night’s discussion centered on allowing hand-held video recording devices that did not disrupt the proceedings, striking a line from the ordinance that the town should received a fee for the use of non-town owned video equipment that plugged into an electric outlet. And also striking a line that would prohibit a camera's ability to pan the room, among others.
“The media is welcome to interview public officials before and after the meeting out in the hall,” said Councilman Todd Tersigni “All public officials have no problem dealing with or talking with the media before or after the meeting.”
Councilman James Stettner said he wanted to make it sure that the town’s video be recognized as the official document of Phillipsburg council meetings.
Councilman Bernie Fey, Jr. said that he just wanted to make sure there were no disruptions from videotaping to council business.
“I didn’t care how many people were out there,” he said. “We have nothing to hide.”
“I wanted to get some reasonable guidelines established so that people can be respectful of one another,” President Randy Piazza, Sr. said.
When asked when council expects to begin officially taping meeting, Linn said that despite logistical IT issues out of council’s control, he remains hopeful they’ll hit the target date of September 30th.
A final vote on the amended ordinance is expected next month.