Silent Sitters Face The YouTube Era

One of the hot issues at the February 25th board meeting was videotaping board meetings. In fact, the issue made it on to the agenda for that meeting. However, when the board reviewed changes to that agenda, the videotaping topic wasn’t changed or dropped. It was just silently skipped during the meeting.

If the board wasn’t prepared to discuss videotaping, homeowner John Platt certainly was. Platt gave a nearly 10 minute presentation on the perils of videotaping that ranged from behavioral control to breaching personal security and identity theft. We can sum up Platt’s message in 2 words: stop videotaping.

Videotaping open meetings fosters good governance. Governance at Lake Holiday extends to committees and task forces, which are the principal advisors to the board. Together, the board, committees, and task forces make decisions that affect about 2700 lots and approximately $210 million of property value (based on February 2008 Frederick County tax valuations). The board, along with committee and task force members, opted to take on the responsibility of governing their community. That authority comes – and should come – with scrutiny.

Videotaping also helps to address something that LHCC Treasurer John Martel acknowledged:

We also have a lot of baggage that we have to overcome.

Homeowner Bill Masters records the meetings. Both Wayne Poyer and GM Ray Sohl have publicly acknowledged that Masters has a right to make these recordings. In fact, at the December 27th meeting, LHCC’s directors briefly discussed recording board meetings on their own.

Getting videos on the web quickly takes some work. To further his goal of fostering open governance, Masters gives the raw video tapes to us to take the most relevant or interesting portions of these meetings and get them on the web as quickly as possible. In many instances, we have video clips of important discussions available on YouTube before LHCC releases a written synopsis of what took place at a meeting. Anyone, including LHCC itself, is free to embed the codes to display any of these videos on a website. The videos are provided at no cost.

Some LHCC directors complain that we edit videos or provide clips that are not representative of what took place. That’s trying to bundle an obviously true statement with a crazy one, hoping that people can’t tell the difference between the two. A typical board meeting takes place over several hours, and the clips we make are no more than 10 minutes long. We don’t set or control this limit; it’s set by third-party video sharing services. It’s self-evident that we edit them. That much is true. In every case where we make an edit, we insert a clearly visible transition effect. If you don’t see a clearly visible transition effect, the video you see is an unmodified video stream.

The claim that something is unrepresentative or taken out of context is the crazy part. Lake Holiday’s board meetings are divided into tabs, as the agenda for the 2/25 meeting demonstrates. These tabs are discrete topics that often have little to do with one another. For example, on the 2/25 agenda, Tab 14 involves a roughly 3 minute discussion about selling a 1991 Ford pickup for $150. The very next tab is a roughly 26 minute discussion of a policy to fill board vacancies. One does not need the context of the old truck sale to understand a policy on filling board vacancies.

The videos we present are clips from a larger meeting. Given that the videos are made available at no charge, technological and practical considerations make it impossible to deliver a 3 hour watch-on-demand meeting video in rural Virginia. YouTube, backed by the multi-billion dollar resources of Google, doesn’t do it. Hollywood movie studios don’t do it. Those that attribute sinister motives to Masters or us for failing to deliver community association videos in their entirety for free display their technical ignorance. Maybe their motives are on display as well.

Dividing meetings into clips allows a viewer to watch what he wants, when he wants. We are not extracting unrepresentative comments from the video when there were opposite or contradictory comments readily available. When we quote John Martel as saying that “we also have a lot of baggage that we have to overcome,” he did not contradict this assertion before or after making that remark. In fact, after Pat Shields expressed an opposing point of view, Martel repeated his position more firmly and succinctly: “Lake Holiday has baggage.”

There are a lot of benefits to providing videos on the web. The majority of Lake Holiday owners do not live at Lake Holiday, so internet-hosted videos enable more owners to observe how their community is governed. Very few owners actually attend meetings, and those that do typically do not stay for the entire meeting. We’ve uploaded more than 100 videos to YouTube, and these videos have been watched over 4000 times. That’s roughly the equivalent of 40 people attending 45 minutes or more of every board meeting for a year. Since board meetings frequently draw no attendees outside open forum, videos create community involvement.

Many of our videos are informative, such as our series on the dam or the maintenance building (Dam Pt 1, Dam Pt 2, Dam Pt 3, Maint Bldg Pt 1, Maint Bldg Pt 2, and Maint Bldg Pt 3) available by clicking the nearby thumbnail or visiting our Videos page). Most videos show LHCC’s directors conducting routine business, such as reviewing the Treasurer’s Report or the GM’s Management Report. Unfortunately, too many videos show the board engaging in what we believe is inappropriate behavior or making a bad decision. A dramatic example of this is the Keep It Over Here Punk video, featuring the antics of director Steve Locke and Bob Fraser. In all cases, owners get to watch their board in action and form their own opinions. If board members find that their conduct appears unflattering when watched on video, the proper course is not to try to pull the plug on videotaping; the proper course is to change that conduct.

As a result of watching board videos, we’ve observed too many board members sitting in silence and then unanimously rubber-stamping a motion or resolution. Typically, we’ve given our Silent Sitter award to a director that we thought was especially passive. During the February meeting, directors Noel O’Brien and Robin Pedlar said very little. However, Noel O’Brien made a strong statement in favor of installing guard rails on West Masters Drive without delay. In light of the recent serious accident on that road, O’Brien is on the right track. Pedlar also voted against the recently adopted policy on filing board vacancies, an unnecessarily cumbersome procedure. These are positive steps, but we think they need to do more. Perhaps some directors are realizing that passivity is not such a good thing after all. Sorry, Robin and Noel. No award for you this month.

We’ve never given an officer our Silent Sitter award. In award terms, LHCC’s officers get off easy, since several have regular responsibilities at monthly meetings that force them to speak up. Sometimes, in the course of that speaking up, officers say things that hurt Lake Holiday. At the February 25th meeting Wayne Poyer complimented John Platt on his “excellent presentation” focused on putting an end to videotaping. Poyer offered this praise despite Poyer’s numerous acknowledgements of Masters’ right to make those recordings. We certainly support Poyer’s allowing Platt the time to make his point. But fueling Platt’s views, especially since they are contrary to opinions that Poyer has expressed, only increases political divisions at Lake Holiday. Poyer should have firmly conveyed that open governance, however uncomfortable it may be at times, is a good thing, and that it is supported by the LHCC board.

For keeping silent on this point, Wayne Poyer is our Silent Sitter for the February 25th board meeting. Congratulations, Wayne! You’re a Silent Sitter!

Making videos of public meetings is an issue that has been closely analyzed outside of Lake Holiday. In March of 2007, the New Jersey Supreme Court decided a case that raised issues similar to those in the discussion of videotaping at Lake Holiday. In the NJ Supreme Court case, Robert Wayne Tarus, a 15 year resident of the Borough of Pine Hill, was blocked from videotaping public meetings. Tarus was a frequent critic of the Borough Council. The court decision referred to remarks the mayor made to a local paper about Tarus: “If he was a decent resident, we would have no problem.”

The court also discussed the Borough’s concerns about how Tarus would use or edit the videos he made:

Finally, during oral argument before this Court, defense counsel for the Borough explained that a primary concern expressed by Council members was that ‘this political opponent . . . was going to take tapes and take them back to his basement and edit them around and turn us all into monsters.’ Thus, by their own admissions, when they blocked plaintiff from videotaping the meetings, the Mayor and Council acted on an impetus that found its genesis, to some degree, in animus against the plaintiff. In that context, we find those actions to be arbitrary and unreasonable.

The concerns that the Borough expressed against Tarus are nearly identical to those that LHCC board members have expressed about Masters’ recording the meetings and our editing the videotapes.

Tarus won his case, and the NJ Supreme Court ruled:

The law has embraced the undeniable fact that modern electronic devices are silent observers of history. These legal foundations support a finding that there is a common law right to videotape.

The NJ case also addressed the concerns expressed by John Platt that videotaping has a negative impact on other meeting attendees:

Video cameras and recorders have become a commonplace item in our every day life. They are a common security device and confront us at the bank, in stores and even in apartment houses. Exposure to video recording of all of us is a normal occurrence on the streets and in public gatherings such as athletic contests and sporting events where participants and spectators are under constant television surveillance. Such exposure is actively sought by all those running for public office in order to place their image and their ideas before the voters. … Today, hand-held video cameras are everywhere — attached to our computers, a common feature in consumer still-shot cameras, and even built into recent generations of mobile telephones. The broad and pervasive use of video cameras at public events evidences a societal acceptance of their use in public fora. … So too, we are not persuaded by fears that the use of video cameras in non-judicial settings will generate intimidation and harassment. … Trepidation over the effect of video cameras in public meetings is overstated. The prevalence of video cameras in society and the open nature of public meetings militate against such hyperbolic concerns. Although some citizens may be fearful of video cameras, we find that consideration insufficient to deny the right to videotape. … The legal foundations described above, with roots wide and deep, offer a glimpse into our evolved understanding of the right of public access and support our finding that there is a common law right to videotape.

Writing for a unanimous NJ Supreme Court, Chief Justice Zazzali referred to the ideas of Jeremy Bentham, Patrick Henry, and James Madison, offering these powerful words:

In short, our civic forefathers have long recognized that spores of corruption cannot survive the light of public scrutiny. … Openness is a hallmark of democracy — a sacred maxim of our government — and video is but a modern instrument in that evolving pursuit. … Arbitrary rules that curb the openness of a public meeting are barricades against effective democracy. The use of modern technology to record and review the activities of public bodies should marshal pride in our open system of government, not muster suspicion against citizens who conduct the recording.

Perhaps Poyer was less than firm in sending that message because openness and hallmarks of democracy do not really enjoy the support of LHCC’s board. Perhaps the disappearing agenda item on videotaping will resurface, and LHCC will seek to block such recording by a policy resolution. We hope not. Whatever happens, watch it play out on YouTube.

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