Baden Borough Solicitor James Amato / photo by Matthew LaComb

Officials in Baden Borough directed BeaverCountian.com multimedia contributor Matthew LaComb to sign official paperwork before recording a public council meeting this week. LaComb refused, believing the requirement violated open meeting provisions of the Pennsylvania Sunshine Act.

Experts on the state’s government transparency laws agree with him.

As part of BeaverCountian.com’s efforts to make county and municipal meetings more widely accessible to the public, LaComb attended Wednesday’s meeting of Baden Borough Council and brought with him a small stand containing recording equipment. LaComb said he was approached at the meeting by the borough secretary and presented with a form titled “Registration of Recording Device.”

“I was fully set up, she walked up and said, ‘I’m guessing you’re going to be recording tonight,'” LaComb said. “I told her I was. She said, ‘you’re going to have to fill out this form.’ I told her I was not going to do that.”

LaComb said the secretary informed him that she would be entering his name on the form and he was ultimately not prevented from recording the meeting.

The basic premise of the Pennsylvania Sunshine Act is simple: when a governmental body convenes a meeting of a quorum of its members where “deliberations” or “officials actions” are occurring, the public must be given advanced notice of the meeting and must be permitted to attend. Among the provisions included in the law is a mandate that the public be permitted to record the meeting.

Baden Borough’s registration form requires anyone wanting to record its meeting to provide their name, address, and a description of the recording device being used. The form also requires a signature stating that the person doing the recording “will abide by the rules and regulations set forth in the attached policy.”

The registration document was accompanied by a two-page borough ordinance containing a series of rules and regulations. Among them, the person wishing to record must fill out the appropriate paperwork, provide it to borough officials, and announce the fact they are recording to the entire meeting room.

Erik Arneson is executive director of the Pennsylvania Office Of Open Records, the state governmental agency that administers public record transparency laws.

“The Sunshine Act is very clear that people have the right to record public meetings,” Arneson said after reviewing Baden Borough’s paperwork. “Here, it appears the borough’s ordinance and ‘Registration of Recording Device’ go well beyond what agencies are permitted to do under the Sunshine Act. … There is no requirement that people who want to record a meeting sign a ‘registration’ or any other document.”

Arneson said he does not believe Baden Borough can legally prohibit the use of concealed recorders at public meetings or order people to turn off their recorders during a recess, both provisions of its current policy.

Melissa Melewsky, Media Law Counsel with the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, agreed that Baden Borough’s registration form and ordinance fly in the face of state laws guaranteeing the public’s rights at official meetings.

“Requiring people to sign a detailed contract and agree to the terms of an unreasonable policy is not in line with the plain letter or intent of the Sunshine Act. The registration requirement is intrusive and unnecessary because the law does not limit who can record or the type of equipment that can be used,” said Melewsky.

“Further, the requirement that people announce their intention to record is illogical; the Sunshine Act has already put the public (and elected officials) on notice that public meetings can be recorded by anyone in attendance. There is no expectation of privacy at a public meeting, and if the agency wants to educate meeting attendees about the possibility of recording, they should not put that onus on the public, they should simply put up a sign that says ‘Pennsylvania law allows public meetings to be recorded by anyone in attendance.'”

Along with its rules, Baden’s ordinance also contains “penalties” which can be imposed for failing to abide by its provisions, including that a recording device may be “confiscated for the duration of the meeting.” Under the policy, any “improper recording” made during the meeting “will be confiscated and destroyed.”

The ordinance goes on to state that anyone not abiding by the borough’s rules will be removed from the public meeting and barred from recording any future meetings for 90 days.

Melewsky scoffed at the provisions.

“The penalty provisions of the policy that would allow government confiscation and destruction of personal property raise significant Constitutional issues, as does the provision that would prohibit recording future public meetings as a punitive measure.”

Along with making sure they are following the law, Melewsky suggested municipalities like Baden Borough need to ensure they are not discouraging members of the community from involving themselves in local government.

“Agencies need to welcome and encourage public participation, not implement policies that could have the opposite effect,” she concluded.

This is not the first time BeaverCountian.com has found Baden Borough to be in apparent violation of state transparency laws. An investigative report published in Feb. 2018 found that borough officials had been attempting to conduct secret votes to hire part-time police officers.

See Also:

Baden Surveillance Video & Emails Confirm Private Meeting & Secret Vote To Hire Police

John Paul
John Paul is the founder of the Beaver Countian. He reports full-time for the site, specializing in investigative journalism with an emphasis on public corruption.

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John Q TaxpayerAccordingtomeRavenSilence_DogoodBirdman Recent comment authors
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Raven
Member
Raven

Kinda cramps their style, doesn’t it? The recorded sesssions to date in the BC are informative, legal and invaluable — a new era in local reporting that will be dreaded by closeted councils, I’m sure.

Raven
Member
Raven

Other town councils are likely watching this and adjusting procedures. I am told that Beaver Council requires that Council members and the public precede comments with “Mother, May I?” But that’s only hearsay.

Accordingtome
Member
Accordingtome

I heard it was “Red Rover, Red Rover” but my source works in the courthouse so they’re not at work most days and as a result aren’t necessarily that reliable.

Birdman
Guest
Birdman

What “full of themselves” nazi’s are running that town????

Raven
Member
Raven

They have a combo autocratic police chief slash manager (real wise choice, right?) who likes to intimidate. And, the council members like to be subservient. That works well for them, but the town be damned.

Raven
Member
Raven

This combination of talents led to the blocking of investigations into and the prosecution of PsychoCop and his man-eating dog. The costs to insurers and the town were about 200 thousand dollars in payments and fines. But, hey, if the DA supported it, and blocked dashcam evidence, it was OK, right? Yep, one big happy family.

Silence_Dogood
Member
Silence_Dogood

So…. I’m up for attending the next meeting, camcorder in hand. I might just go purchase a brand new one specifically for this. Who’s with me?

Raven
Member
Raven

I have a pad and some number two pencils, but I’d like notice of the next one to be recorded.

Accordingtome
Member
Accordingtome

No doubt Sleeper has asked that a copy of this policy be faxed over to the courthouse and he’ll be making a motion that the commissioners adopt a policy that makes those recording county commissioner meetings in the future agree in writing to only record “those moments which reflect dignified dialogue and discourse among the commissioners” and “which will only personify the character and integrity of commissioners’ meetings as being of the highest moral and ethical caliber.”

After all, if he is going to fantasize that the county’s finances are at surplus levels he might as well get to fantasize that he’s going to become a YouTube sensation as the little commissioner with big influence.

And of course, per usual, Conehead will second the motion because Dan is a man who is guided by the singular principle of monkey see, monkey do.

John Q Taxpayer
Member
John Q Taxpayer

Now there is a Solicitor that needs a haircut and directions to the Men’s Warehouse.