UPDATE (3/11/2018): Action on Ordinance 2018-02 has been tabled until Wednesday, 3/28/2018 to allow time for legal review.
March 14, 2018 at 7:30 PM*, the Mansfield Township Committee (Warren County) will hold a public hearing and final vote on a new ordinance that sets forth rather restrictive rules for the video and audio recording of its open public meetings. The 5-member governing body introduced Ordinance 2018-02 at its February 14, 2018 regular meeting and passed it on first reading by a 4-1 vote, with Committeeman Michael Misertino the only dissenter.
Ironically, the final vote is set to occur during National Sunshine Week (March 11-17, 2018), a time of year when the conversation is all about open government.
Members of the public have a common law right to video-record an open public meeting per the 2007 NJ Supreme Court ruling in Tarus v. Borough of Pine Hill. Though public officials can establish reasonable guidelines for recording, they cannot overly restrict the activity.
The Mansfield Township ordinance contains provisions similar to those in an ordinance adopted by the Lyndhurst Board of Commissioners last year called over-reaching by NJFOG and ACLU-NJ. The Mansfield ordinance not only restricts recording, but attendee conduct as well. Some provisions include: No use of phones except for eye-level recording or photo-taking, no texting or emailing, no talking, no moving when video-recording or taking photos (including standing and sitting), 1-hour advance notice of intent to video-record and completion of set-up 10 minutes prior to the start of the meeting, and no removal of video equipment during the meeting. It would seem that you can’t even quietly leave early and pack up your tripod and camera outside. There is also a reference in the ordinance to audio devices that use mini-cassettes and a reference to rewinding that seem left over from another era and suggest that the document may be a recycled version of something long outdated.
It’s not clear what the consequence will be for breaking the rules, but the ordinance states that the mayor has broad discretion to decide if an activity is disruptive.
It’s unfortunate that the ordinance, if passed, could serve to deter public participation even if certain provisions are not enforceable. The chilling effect runs counter to the spirit of the OPMA, which was intended to increase transparency and encourage public involvement.
One noteworthy provision in the Mansfield ordinance gets our stamp of approval, however. It says, “Members of the governing body, boards, committees, and commissions are prohibited from text messaging, e-mailing or communicating with any person during any meeting regarding any agenda item or other matter dealing with the Township of Mansfield.” That’s as it should be because the public should be able to witness deliberation at an open public meeting.
* The date and time of the hearing are per Ordinance 2018-02 and are subject to change.