Camera ready, almost Council to finalize plans to videotape meetings

Secaucus residents may soon be able to enjoy the bimonthly Town Council meetings from the comfort of their living room couches rather than the hardwood pews of the Municipal Center.

Members of the council say they are close to finalizing plans to videotape and broadcast their meetings on Channel 32, a local public access station. Although the governing body must still hash out details, town officials said last week that televised council meetings should hit the airwaves before the end of the year.

If that happens, Secaucus can add itself to a growing list of municipalities in New Jersey that broadcast public meetings – and the Independents will likely claim a political victory.

“When we ran our campaign, one of the things we said we wanted to do is have televised meetings so anybody could see them, whether they could get to the council meeting or not,” said Councilman Gary Jeffas, who ran on the Take Back Secaucus slate with fellow Councilman Michael Gonnelli and Bob Berckes in 2006. “Initially, it was an issue that we wanted to address as part of our campaign promises.”

Late last year a TV subcommittee of the council formed to research how Secaucus could get its municipal meetings on the airwaves. Committee members Jeffas, Councilman John Shinnick, and former Town Administrator Anthony Iacono were charged with investigating how other New Jersey towns broadcast their public meetings and what it would cost Secaucus to do the same. (Current Town Administrator David Drumeler joined the subcommittee when Iacono left his position.)

“Originally, my concept was to do a live telecast, then a rebroadcast between meetings. That’s a pretty difficult and expensive process, given where our in-house technology is right now. To broadcast live, we’d have to do a live feed, which would require us to upgrade our technical equipment. And that would be costly.”

Jeffas said the TV subcommittee has since scaled back its plans.

Currently the plan is to record meetings and air them later. The town already has the technical equipment to do this, Jeffas said, and the only expense would be the hourly labor costs of a cameraman.

Now, after nearly a year of work by the TV subcommittee, Secaucus might finally be poised to get its own version of C-SPAN, and not a minute too soon according to some residents.

“Many of my neighbors are ‘shut-ins,’ so they can’t come out to these meetings. But they want to know what’s going on,” resident Carole Acropolis stated at a council meeting in July. Acropolis, who lives in one of the three senior residences in town, added, “[It] really would be better if the meetings were televised.”

Resident council watchdog Tom Troyer, who has inquired about the status of televised meetings at nearly every Town Council session this year, is skeptical meetings will be aired soon and said he’ll believe it when he sees it.

“The councilmen will yes you to death. It’s been months they’ve been talking about doing this,” Troyer said last week. “I mean, this isn’t brain surgery. Now they’re saying they’ll televise meetings by the end of the year. What’s the delay? Even if they get the meetings televised, I want to know, what’s going to be edited out?”

Devil in the details

Troyer’s question is one the full Town Council must now answer.

Technically speaking, Jeffas said nothing will be edited out – but not everything will be recorded and aired.

The governing body could choose to either record caucus meetings, which are usually held in the late afternoon, or the Town Council sessions, held every other Tuesday at 7 p.m. And if the decision is to videotape the evening meetings, town leadership will then need to determine whether or not to include comments from the public in the video.

There are pros and cons to any route the council might take.

“There is the danger that people will play to the camera because they know they’ll be on TV,” said Drumeler, who talked to officials in Jersey City, Caldwell, and Somerville, among other municipalities, as part of his research for the TV subcommittee. “You hope that some deference will be shown and that people will follow the rules of decorum. But you can’t always control that.”

He added that some municipalities, like Jersey City, try to curb attention-grabbing behavior by only taping caucus meetings, or by excluding the public comments portion of the regular meeting.

“I know in Jersey City that has worked out well,” Drumeler said.

The exclusion of public comments doesn’t sit well with Troyer, a vocal critic of the town leadership who frequently speaks at council meetings. “How can you leave out the public comments,” he asked. “That’s like leaving out half of a conversation. Sometimes, the most meaningful information only comes out because of a comment or question from the public.”

Gaps in the audiotape

Currently, Town Clerk Michael Marra records and keeps archives of audiotapes of council meetings.

But according to open government advocate and Hoboken Town Councilwoman Beth Mason, archived audiotapes can be easily manipulated. “We discovered in 2005 that some of the audiotapes of the council meetings had gaps in them,” Mason recalled. “So, for example, our acting CFO at the time stated during a meeting that he hadn’t reviewed the budget before submitting it to the state. And that was on tape. But later that portion of the tape went missing. And that wasn’t the first time that had happened.”

In response, Mason who was not a member of the council at the time, began filming her own videotapes of council meetings, which she would post online. She also began taping school board meetings.

The city passed resolutions to prevent her from taping. These resolutions were, however, voided by a March 2007 New Jersey State Supreme Court ruling that gave the public the right to videotape open government meetings.

Soon after the court decision Hoboken launched its own public access station, which now broadcasts council meetings. Hoboken tapes full council meetings, including comments from the public. The city doesn’t have caucus meetings.

“I can tell you,” Mason said, “if you talk to 90 percent of the people in Hoboken they’ll tell you those videotaped meetings are the thing that has made them start taking a look at what’s happening here more than anything else.”

It’s an outcome Jeffas hopes to replicate in Secaucus.

“We’re scheduled to talk about this on Tuesday at our caucus meeting,” Jeffas said. “I can’t say what will come out of that discussion. But my sense is the full council is now on board with having televised meetings. I think everyone understands this can be a useful tool for our residents. We just need to find a middle ground on what will be taped. I can’t imagine that we’d tape the caucus, the council meeting, and public comments. Our caucus meetings begin at 4:30, and the council meeting doesn’t end until nine. No offense, but I don’t know who in their right mind would want to watch five-and-a-half hours of council meetings.”

In Secaucus, there’d probably be someone.

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