Great Ideas for Transparency in Sussex County

A recent story in the New Jersey Herald (December 15, 2016) by reporter David Danzis highlighted the about face by Freeholder boss George Graham on the issue of allowing Sussex County's citizens to see what goes on at the Freeholder Board meetings.  Having campaigned on "transparency", the majority of the freeholders are now on record as opposing it.  Danzis reported:

 

The Sussex County Board of Chosen Freeholders voted to reject a resolution that would have requested a local cable television provider record and broadcast regularly-scheduled public meetings.

 

The resolution was a formal request of Service Electric Cable TV of NJ, Inc. to provide broadcasting services pursuant to federal law concerning Public, Educational, and Governmental Access Channels. The cable provider would have subcontracted a videographer to attend the meetings. The service would have been free of charge to the county. The meeting would have aired at least twice on SECTV's public channel.

 

The vote on Wednesday evening was 3-2 with Freeholder Director George Graham, Freeholder Deputy Director Carl Lazzaro and Freeholder Jonathan Rose against and Freeholders Phillip Crabb and Richard Vohden in favor.

 

...Following the vote, several members of the public voiced their disapproval of the freeholder's decision.

 

"I think the vote you took on cable TV was, I'm thinking, absurd," a Sparta resident in attendance commented. "You had an opportunity to get this thing to reach some additional people ... I don't know why you wouldn't vote ‘Yes' for that."

 

Harvey Roseff, of Byram, said he found it "absurd" that the issue has taken months to be brought up only to be voted down.

 

"There's absolutely no problem here," Roseff said. "It's already done all over New Jersey. You're not breaking any new ground. You just don't want to do it. There's a core group of people here pretending it's a complicated matter -- it just isn't."

 

Posted under the story in the Herald, a number of people commented with good insights and proposals for moving forward.  Among them were the following:

 

"No reasonable person would say that free TV airing of a meeting is worthless. Plenty of people still have Service Electric cable. It's funny that the same people that voted no are the ones who ran saying the meeting times would be changed so more people could attend. It is also the group that authorized $500,000 to be spent on an investigation that the board refuses to inform the public about..." (Nathan Orr)

 

"The following information is taken directly from the NJ League of Municipalities website, and can be found at http://www.njslom.org/magart_1208_pg74.html

'Municipal officials are often concerned about the videotaping of municipal meetings by the public, both because of the possible disruption of the meeting and because some residents attending the meetings do not want to be videotaped. New Jersey case law makes it clear that a member of the public cannot be prohibited from videotaping a municipal meeting. In the case of Tarus v. Pine Hill, Docket No.a-93-05(2007), the New Jersey Supreme Court said “…we hold that, subject to reasonable restrictions, members of the public have a common law right to videotape municipal proceedings in New Jersey. Our conclusion is supported by an interwoven tapestry of jurisprudence and policy that demonstrates both the value of open government and the right to document governmental proceedings.'  As for concerns over the privacy of members of the public, the Court said 'Although some citizens may be fearful of video cameras, we find that consideration insufficient to deny the right to videotape. Further, no right of privacy protects a citizen’s public comments.'

It appears from the information above that this SECTV proposal can be circumvented; these meetings may be recorded by any member of the public, with additional information on the website including the caveat that such recordings may in no way disrupt the meeting. This NJ Supreme Court case law may open the floodgates to live streaming, i.e. Facebook Live or Periscope, to provide instant, real-time, open access to the greater public.

County citizens, including myself, have spoken at meetings of the freeholders in order to request a later start time to allow for greater public attendance and participation. Sussex County is vastly a 'commuter county', with a 5 pm start time prohibiting many from regular participation. I commend Freeholders Crabb and Vohden for recognizing these challenges and for supporting a valid solution. I do not fault these gentlemen for not acting on this issue prior to now; demand for technology is swiftly evolving, and it is foolhardy to not accept a current offer of this kind in a timely manner--free of charge to the taxpayers--in order to bring these meetings to a larger audience. 'Grandstanding', although obnoxious, is certainly protected under the first amendment, and can be witnessed from both sides of the dais; fear of such behavior is an invalid reason for rejecting this proposal, as is the assertion that because of the limited scope and sequence of airings, recording and rebroadcasting has no intrinsic value. I also do not see anywhere in state statutes where the right to record may be rejected because it may '...not take into account the entire county'. I urge the Board of Chosen Freeholders to revisit this issue, as the optics of this rejection does not bode well if the goal of the board is transparency." (Dawn Fantasia)

 

"Necessity is the mother of invention. President-Elect Donald Trump figured that out when he took to Twitter to circumvent the media and reach out to the voters directly. Someone needs to step up and do the same in Sussex County." (Ann Smulewicz)

 

"I remember reading George Graham is looking to be Freeholder Director for a 2nd straight year. I also have heard George Graham is waiting to become Gail Phoebus’ Chief of Staff, which would make George a 'double dipper' for taxpayer funded positions. I was wondering if this was announced at the Freeholder meeting, because if not, and George & Gail are planning this, when are his colleagues and the Sussex County taxpayers supposed to find out?

 

...The 5PM start time does not allow normal and most out-of-county workers to attend Freeholder meetings. I believe this was something else Mr. Rose was going to address to make meetings more open and transparent to the public.

 

...To the Sparta resident’s point this would give the ability to reach more residents county wide and could even be a positive as people could actually find out what services are available to them. Believe it or not, not everyone has a computer to look things up on a website, especially the elderly. I’ll bet they have TV.  Besides transparency, it’s called communication. What is “the right way to do it”? Sounds more to me like fear of communication and this type of openness would bring more questions from the public to this Freeholder board."  (Kathleen Gorman)

 

"Here is yet another instance of why taxes are high and services low in Sussex County. If last night's meeting had been aired, instead of being held at the usual and uninviting hour of 5pm, one would have learned that an employee union contract was approved without discussion or the public knowing what the new expense will be. One would have seen that Freeholders delayed for 26 months to do the minutes of a critical solar program closed session meeting. A most controversial Hopatcong development project was approved, but a resident asked that a proper planning process first be followed before a vote. All over New Jersey and the nation, government meetings are televised and placed on the web to bring healthier governing. Six months of pretense and delay, and we get not a solution for more transparency in government, but legal blather, and hollow excuses, to make sure it won't happen in Sussex County." (Harvey Roseff)