Cocalico Corner: On the record — unfiltered and time-sensitive

By on May 3, 2017

Cocalico Corner Donna ReedFake news. How often do you say it? How often do you believe it?

It’s common for elected officials, now particularly from the top (or bigly) guy in D.C., to complain they aren’t properly quoted or their statements misinterpreted by reporters or editors “out to get them.”

Believe me, after more than four decades in the news business and nearly two in public service, I’ve heard complaints from both sides.

Some officials I’ve covered and some with whom I’ve served over the years often don’t realize exactly what they’re saying and then get upset when they see their statements in print or televised as part of a news segment.

And there are journalists with whom I’ve worked (and myself included on occasion) who get steamed when their credibility is attacked because some official believes the news entity in question should serve as their personal public relations agent — not the eyes and ears of the public at large.

In the last few weeks, skirmishes between the media and elected officials have hit home with the questionable hiring process of a new township manager undertaken by the East Cocalico supervisors.

In a nutshell: In executive session in early March, the supervisors interviewed and subsequently offered the job to H. Scott Russell. A couple days later, he accepted the position. A week or so after that, in a press release, the supervisors announced the appointment of Russell.

Problem here — two township meetings were held between that executive session and the meeting at which the approval of a new manager was listed as an agenda item.

The process, in apparent flagrant violation of the state Sunshine Act, drew the ire of several residents and veteran LNP Editor Jed Kensinger who attended the April 6 meeting to voice their protests. Kensinger read a letter detailing the Sunshine violations and requested it be included in the minutes.

Two weeks later, at the next township meeting, the supervisors moved to approve the minutes of the April 6 session.

Alice Hummer, our East Cocalico correspondent, reported:

…Resident Ken McCrea remarked: “I see no mention of Jed Kensinger, an LNP editor, requesting that his letter of protest – regarding alleged Sunshine Law violations during supervisors recent, hiring process with the new, township manager – be included in the official minutes of the meeting.”

The only reference to Kensinger in the draft minutes was: “Mr. Kensinger from LNP Media Group Inc. protested the selection process.”

(Supervisor Chairman Douglas) Mackley stated that the minutes are a summary. He said he acknowledged Kensinger’s request; he didn’t say that his letter would be included in the minutes.

Following a short discussion between Mackley and McCrea, township Solicitor Tom Goodman suggested that a sentence be inserted stating that Jed Kensinger, LNP Inc. presented a letter of protest to the supervisors.

The motion to approve the amended minutes passed unanimously. The letter will not be part of the minutes. What will happen to the letter is unclear.

The formally adopted minutes of a public meeting become the official record of that meeting. What the supervisors did here was tailor the minutes, albeit under a bit of duress, to their personal satisfaction. Leaving out the gritty details makes their own historical record all the sunnier.

What can be done to make sure the public really understands what’s happening in local government meetings? Well, take some lessons from McCrea — he audio records all East Cocalico meetings. What really transpired is what’s on his tapes.

Indeed, East Cocalico also audio records its meetings. The protocol was announced at the April 20 meeting and appeared as a disclaimer at the bottom of the agenda:

“Please note that all meetings are recorded. The purpose of the recordings is to assist with the preparation of meeting minutes. Upon adoption of the meeting minutes the recordings are destroyed.”

Mackley read the statement at the meeting.

“This is understood and we’ve been doing this,” he said.

The interesting thing here is that should a member of the public who wants a copy of the recording would need to file a Right to Know request with the township — unless of course the supervisors would happily turn it over.

Under Pennsylvania’s Office of Open Records Section 102 of the Right to Know Law, the law defines the term “record” as:

“Information, regardless of physical form or characteristics, that documents a transaction or activity of an agency and that is created, received or retained pursuant to law or in connection with a transaction, business or activity of the agency. The term includes a document, paper, letter, map, book, tape, photograph, film or sound recording, information stored or maintained electronically and a data-processes or image-processes document.”

“The term ‘record,’ according to the definition, specifically identifies a ‘tape’,” opined Terry Mutchler, executive director of the OOR back in 2009. Also mentioned under RTK are a board secretary’s notes which are considered public record.

When it comes to audio or video recordings — prior to the minutes being recorded or adopted — timing is of the essence for the public or journalists to make a request.

“There is no specific retention schedule for meeting audio, and most agencies set their own policy,” said Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association.

“What’s important to note is that the audio is public from the moment of creation, and public access is required upon request even if official minutes are not completed. Meeting audio does not fall under the draft minute exemption in the RTKL.

“Many reporters routinely request meeting audio shortly after the meeting takes place, often the day after.”

If reporters know to do this, so should members of the public at large.

In the other Cocalico municipalities — West Cocalico and Adamstown and Denver boroughs — there seems to be less strain.

In Denver Borough, Manager Mike Hession, audio recordings are kept until the minutes are formally approved at the next meeting. He said while a RTK request would need to be presented, there would be a quick response per protocol.

Attendees may do their own recordings, but council requests they make their recording known at the meeting. McCrea does just that when he attends regional leaders meetings held in Denver.

Hession, who is looking into live streaming council meetings on the borough Web site, said there have been no issues.

In Adamstown, Sam Toffy, borough secretary, said there is no formal policy set by council. She does record the meetings but erases the recording as soon as the minutes are typed.

“That’s just the way I was told as trained,” she said. “We reuse the tapes.”

The council has no objection to others recording; case in point is Review Adamstown correspondent Michele Walter Fry who brings her audio recorder to every meeting.

In West Cocalico, the use of a recorder is more haphazard, said Manager Carolyn Hildebrand.

“We’ll tend to use it when there’s more of an issue at hand,” she said. “It helps the secretary when there are overlapping voices as she compares the recording with her notes.”

Neither Hildebrand nor Toffy recalled any time there was a request for a recording or notes. Neither believed there would be any problems with complying with a citizen or reporter request.

Hildebrand also noted that McCrea always records the regional leaders meetings when they are held at West Cocalico.

Indeed, according to Hummer, McCrea always positions a portable sign near him proclaiming a recording is occurring.

Anyone wanting a recording — the unfiltered happening of East Cocalico, regional leaders, or other assorted meetings, might do well to reach out to McCrea. The owner of research firm, he catalogues and archives his recordings.

And, he likely won’t require an RTK request.

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