Sag Harbor School Board Considers Adjustments to Videotaping Policy

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By Tessa Raebeck

Rounding out a six-month trial period of videotaping its meetings for public broadcast, the Sag Harbor Board of Education decided Tuesday it will continue to record them, but not without making a few adjustments to the policy.

In response to a call from the public for increased transparency, the school board implemented a trial period of recording its meetings “for the benefit of the public who are unable to attend a meeting in person and disseminating information to the public.” The trial began on July 1 and is set to expire at the end of this month. When the policy was adopted in April, it mandated the board to review and vote on it before December 15.

At the school board meeting on Tuesday, December 9, the board held its first reading of the new policy. Members suggested edits, which will be reviewed by School Attorney Thomas Volz, and, if cleared legally, included for discussion in the second reading of the policy at the board’s next meeting on Monday, December 15. After that reading, the board will discuss the edits and make any additional recommendations before voting on the policy.

The video recordings will be available for one year from the date of the board meeting and can be accessed on the district website, sagharborschools.org, under the Board of Education tab. They are also available on the LTV and SEA-TV websites, the public access stations for East Hampton and Southampton, respectively. Additionally, both channels have added the meetings to their regularly scheduled programming, with broadcast on Sunday mornings and “in the middle of the night,” according to Superintendent Katy Graves.

The original policy, adopted April 23, states, “meetings not open to the public, such as meetings regarding negotiations, litigation, or other issues calling for executive session, shall not be videotaped.”

That policy, which launched the trial run and scheduled the December review, said the district would “videotape its public meetings,” but the draft read Tuesday had a proposed edit to say, “videotape its regularly scheduled public meetings.”

“Regularly scheduled” refers to the two meetings, one educational and one business, that are scheduled each month. The board also plans to occasionally record popular workshops, using the example of one on Common Core held last year that was well-attended by parents.

The clarification, advocated by school board member Sandi Kruel, was meant to ensure the board is not obligated to videotape the occasional instances when it hosts special meetings, which are usually held to promptly deal with personnel issues or pass small resolutions. In defense of that language, Ms. Kruel brought up the example of when the board convenes for an executive session, which are never available to the public, but goes into public session briefly to pass one resolution.

“I, personally, will never be in favor of bringing [Technology Director Scott Fisher] in to stay longer, or anybody else, for four hours, five hours, for one resolution,” said Ms. Kruel, adding, “If the public is that concerned on that vote then they should come to the two-minute vote and hear it themselves.”

Mr. Fisher, who is responsible for the videotaping, said it takes him about an hour to set up before meetings, another hour to transfer the recording into a sharable format, some 15 minutes to post it to the district website, and the time of the custodial staff to break down the equipment.

School board member David Diskin, who before and after being elected was a staunch supporter of recording meetings, but became more wary—albeit still supportive—when made aware of the possible legal ramifications, proposed the idea to the board of starting recording at the end of the first public input session and ending it before a second public input portion at the end of the meeting “so that this is the meeting of the board.”

School board meetings start with an opportunity for public comment, for which community members can sign up ahead of time to speak on a specific topic. After the presentations, votes and other agenda items of the meeting, community members have a second opportunity to speak, which does not require preregistration or a specific topic.

“What I want the public to be able to see and I think what’s fair for everyone to see is this meeting, the meeting of the board. But when we first got into it, we were advised that the board runs the risk of becoming party to other viewpoints that the board doesn’t necessarily want to rebroadcast,” Mr. Diskin said, adding he is concerned about future boards and circumstances.

“As a governing body, I’m not sure we should be rebroadcasting every public statement,” he added.

“We had a meeting last year where we had staff members at the podium say things that we would really not be able to rebroadcast,” added school board Vice President Chris Tice. “We’ve had it from public members as well, so it has happened in the past several years and you’re right, it will happen again. So, I think that’s a really interesting idea.”

“I would just like to run that by our attorney when we meet with him,” said Theresa Samot, president of the school board, referring to a meeting with Mr. Volz that will take place before the policy’s second reading.

Allison Scanlon, a Sag Harbor parent and regular attendee of school board meetings, expressed her disapproval of Mr. Diskin’s idea.

“I think you guys need a reality check,” said Ms. Scanlon. “What I just heard was shocking to me—it would be the equivalent of The Sag Harbor Express saying send your letters to the editor, but we’re not going to print them.”

Board Vice President Chris Tice reminded the audience there were “suggestions made tonight that may or may not be legal, or may or may not be supported by the majority of the board, but they were just put out as suggestions, then we have another discussion before there would be a vote.”

Although the policy is being reviewed line by line, some technical difficulties cannot be accounted for. Before the end of the board’s nearly four-hour meeting on Tuesday, the recording—and, arguably, some members of the audience—shut down, and due to full storage the iPad being used as a video camera failed to capture the last half hour of the meeting.

The next meeting of the board of education and the second reading of the videotaping policy will be on Monday, December 15, at 6 p.m. at the Pierson library.

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