No recording in Arkansas county

(A Quorum Court is a county legislature; a justice of the peace is a county legislator.)

JPs' ban on video sparks debate



SALEM — With the pristine Spring River to the east and the edge of Norfork Lake and the serene Ozark Mountain foothills to the west, Fulton County is a videographer's dream.

But while people can wander through the scenic north-central Arkansas county in search of sights to videotape, they better not record county government in action.

Fulton County justices of the peace voted last week to ban any video-recording device in Fulton County Quorum Court meetings, saying they feel a "chilling effect" when cameras are turned on. The action — which six of the nine justices favored — has spurred discourse over the legalities and ethics of banning cameras in public meetings.

It's the only county in the state that officials who monitor city and county government know of that has enacted such a ban.

"It's a legitimate debate," said Mark Whitmore, chief legal counsel for the Arkansas Association of Counties. "You have to ask if a camera would impair a person's ability to do their job.

"Some people seem to be under the belief that the First Amendment goes to anyone with a video camera," he said.

The Fulton County Quorum Court first discussed banning recording devices during the July 11 meeting after Jack Cole of Viola placed a video camera near the end of the conference table at which the justices of the peace sat. Members didn't take action that night, saying they wanted to obtain more information before enacting any rules.

Cole said he wanted to record the meeting because he could not hear Quorum Court members. He said he thought he could understand comments better if he turned the volume louder while playing back the recording.

John Tull, an attorney who represents the Arkansas Press Association, believes Cole's access to meetings is hindered by not being able to videotape them.

"It's bad form for any public institution to restrict access to meetings," he said. "It's not good politics to disallow access to a public meeting."

Cole set up his camera Monday night during the court's August meeting.

Peter Martin, who shoots public meetings in Fulton and Sharp counties for playback on a local cable system, also attended the meeting with his video camera.

With both cameras running, Quorum Court members discussed the ban.

"Can we do this legally?' one member asked.

"It doesn't say in the Freedom of Information Act," said Dwayne Plumlee, a Salem attorney who represents Fulton County. "It doesn't say it anywhere."

The Arkansas Freedom of Information Act does not address the issue of video cameras, but does say people should be provided access to public meetings. Banning video is not listed as an exemption of the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act.

Arkansas Attorney General Opinion 83-213 said public meetings can be videotaped by private citizens.

Plumlee said an attorney general's opinion was not binding law. "It doesn't hold any more weight legally here than my opinion," he said.

Nancy Cole, wife of Jack Cole, objected to the Quorum Court's discussion.

"I cannot, as a citizen of Fulton County, sit here and watch you violate the rights of the people of this county," she said. Members voted 6-3 to adopt a rule to ban the cameras and County Judge Charles Willett asked that the two turn off their cameras. Both refused. "We have the right to do this," Martin said "We air the meeting in its entirety. I don't cut it. "It shouldn't be a bad thing for you people," he said. "I'd assume you'd want to invite this participation." Jack Cole was more blunt. "This is a bunch of crap," he said.

Sheriff Buck Foley turned both cameras away from Quorum Court members, but left them running.

After the meeting Willett said the justices of the peace told him they felt intimidated by the cameras.

"It has a 'chilling effect' on some members," Willett said. "They don't speak their mind. They act differently."

Members were aware of the camera. Before the meeting's start Monday, one Quorum Court member jokingly told Justice of the Peace Marjorie Rogers she'd "better put on lipstick for the cameras," Rogers said.

Justice of the Peace Jim Bicker, who voted in favor of the ban, said he felt "uncomfortable" with the cameras and didn't like seeing himself on television.

"I have no problem with audio [recording]," Bicker said. "I just don't like the video."

Numerous city and county governments allow video-recording of meetings. Pulaski County airs its Quorum Court meetings live on cable. Baxter, Sharp, Izard and Washington counties, to name a few, replay their meetings on cable access channels. Cities such as Benton, Jonesboro, Pine Bluff, Hot Springs and Fayetteville also show City Council meetings on cable systems, various officials said.

"It's the first time I've ever heard of anyone banning cameras," said Doug Krile, the executive director of the Arkansas Broadcasters Association. "They've always invited us in before. This strikes me as strange."

Tull, the attorney for the Arkansas Press Association, said those who become disruptive while video recording can be removed from meetings, but, "You can't blanket all recordings by law."

He said he also sides with Cole's claim that he records the meetings because he can't hear them.

"There is an issue about getting access to meetings," Tull said. "The [Freedom of Information Act] can be read to guarantee access to those meetings.

"For an elected official to say he has 'chills' in front of a camera is absurd," Tull said. "Those are people who were elected to their positions by speaking out in front of people."

Whitmore, the attorney for the organization of counties, said cameras can be distracting and may cause grandstanding by some officials, or shyness in others.

"If you are interested in a public meeting, you are welcome to go to it," Whitmore said. "No one is keeping you from going. The basic law allows you go to. Beyond that, people demand advanced access — there's no rights to that. Once you have access, you can't demand electronic access.

"It's hard to believe that the U.S. Supreme Court can ban cameras [in its courtroom], but people in Fulton County want cameras. I can't believe Fulton County is more important than the U.S. Supreme Court," Whitmore said.

The Coles have not said whether they plan to challenge the county's ban on cameras. If they do, Plumlee said, the county will fight it.

Rogers said she didn't have a problem with video recording devices in the Quorum Court meetings and even encourages it.

"I don't want this to be a closed society," she said. "I think we have the right to have these meetings documented."