Monday, August 15, 2011

From Borough Hall: banning photography and video at the Atlantic Yards District Service Cabinet meetings is "to prevent disruptions." What are disruptions?

At the Atlantic Yards District Service Cabinet meeting, held the morning of 7/14/11 at Borough Hall, some of us in the audience picked up cameras to take a few photos.

(I shot the photo at left before the meeting began.)

I did, as did Amy Clark of Prospect Heights Patch, Michael D. D. White of Noticing New York, and a couple of academics working on a project related to Atlantic Yards.

A Borough Hall staffer told us to stop taking photos.

Getting an explanation

Later, I asked, as I had done in February, for an explanation of why cameras were banned at the meetings, held bi-monthly.

Markowitz spokesman Mark Zustovich sent me a statement:
“Our office, along with Empire State Development (ESD) and Council Member Letitia James, are preparing a statement about the openness of these meetings and our expectations regarding public attendee behavior, and that statement will be included with each meeting’s agenda so there’s no confusion going forward. However, you will recall that an announcement was made at the second AYDSC earlier this year by Arana Hankin of ESD that since these meetings are non-deliberative, they are not subject to open public meetings law. [see coverage] Therefore, while we’ve allowed the public to attend and view the meetings, we have prohibited the use of film and photography in order to prevent disruptions. The public is encouraged to view, record audio, take notes and report on the proceedings of the cabinet. They are not permitted to film or photograph the meetings.”
(The photo at right, with Council Member Letitia James in the foreground, was shot during the meeting.)

Is photography disruptive?

I responded requesting an elaboration, especially since ESD has stated that they did not restrict videotaping.
Can't there be a policy to allow film/photography that is non-disruptive? (For example, by allowing photography for a brief period, or setting up a camera on a tripod a distance away.)

Or is film/photography considered inherently disruptive?
Zustovich responded:
The statement speaks for itself and we will leave it at that.
The importance of video

I think video is important--it shows the demeanor and attitude of those making the decisions, and the often cordial, sometimes combative exchanges.

And given that meetings held during the day are impossible for most people to attend, video--think CNN--could substitute for that inaccessibility.

What's really going on

I have a strong suspicion that attendees were peeved at the close-in video--including some footage not so flattering to speakers--I shot (from my seat) during the first meeting, held 11/4/10.

But that meeting was held in a very small room.

Such close-ups could be avoided if the meetings continue to be held in a large room, and the camera placed, CNN-style, in a fixed spot (though it could be turned to follow speakers).

But Borough Hall doesn't seem ready to embrace that safeguard. They--and, apparently, some participants, be they from Forest City or government agencies--just don't want pictures.

I understand that sentiment. But, given the controversy surrounding the project, shouldn't they favor more transparency?

What if?

If it were an open meeting, with a quorum, a ban on non-disruptive photography would be impossible.

According to the state Committee on Open Government:
In short, the courts have determined that anyone may record open meetings, so long as use of a recording device is not disruptive or obtrusive. Those bodies will be statutorily required to allow meetings to be photographed, broadcast, webcast or otherwise recorded and/or transmitted by audio or video means. The new provision also states that public bodies may adopt reasonable rules governing the use of cameras and recording devices during open meetings, in which case such rules must be written, conspicuously posted, and provided to those in attendance upon request.

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