A New York state senator ordered a man to stop recording a public meeting Tuesday, telling him he did not have the right to record because he was not a resident of the county where the meeting was taking place.
Senator Sue Serino was wrong but that did not stop a Putnam County sheriff’s deputy from threatening the man with arrest.
The man runs a YouTube channel under the username Mert Melfa and appears to be a critic of Serino, which explains why the senator would fabricate a law to have him shut down the camera, preventing him from recording the so-called “community conversation.”
She even claimed that she spoke with “counsel,” who advised her it was lawful to order him to shut down the camera.
“Counsel said that under open meeting’s law, we can ask that you not film because there might be people that might not want to speak up,” she said.
While they can certainly ask, they cannot force him to turn off his camera. And it’s in bad form to even ask considering politicians should strive for transparency.
In his YouTube description, Mert Merfa posted the state law that clearly states he had the right to record the meeting.
NEW YORK OPEN MEETINGS LAW, ARTICLE 7, SECTION 103d
Public Participation and recording meetings:
The Open Meetings Law provides the public with the right to attend meetings of public bodies, but it is silent concerning the ability of members of the public to speak or otherwise participate. Although public bodies are not required to permit the public to speak at their meetings, many have chosen to do so. In those instances, it has been advised that a public body should do so by adopting reasonable rules that treat members of the public equally.
Public bodies are required to allow meetings to be photographed, broadcast, webcast or otherwise recorded as long as the equipment used to do so is not disruptive or obtrusive. If the public body adopts rules regarding such activities, they must be reasonable and conspicuously posted, and provided to those in attendance upon request (§103(d)).
However, when Mert Melfa continued to assert his right to record, citing the state law, Serino gave the nod to the deputy, who swaggered over and informed him that the public meeting was open only to Putnam County residents.
And that meant that Mert Melfa, who is a resident of Dutchess County, just north of Putnam County in downstate New York, was not welcome.
“So you’re going to arrest me if I don’t leave,” the videographer asked.
“At this point, you’re pushing that line, yes,” the deputy responded before the man turned off the camera.
Below is a screenshot from her Facebook page where she invited the public to attend the meeting. As you can see, she is already getting criticized.
UPDATE: The Poughkeepsie Journal published a story a few minutes ago, interviewing the executive director of the state Committee on Open Government, who said it is not clear whether or not the videographer had the right to video record.
Melfa said the videotaping is legal under the Open Meetings Law because a majority of the Putnam Valley town board was there.
Robert Freeman, executive director of the state Committee on Open Government, said it’s not a clear-cut answer on whether the filming was allowable under the Open Meetings Law.
If the majority of the board was there in its official capacity as “a public body,” as the law states, then it would fall under the Open Meetings Law, he said.
But Serino’s camp believed that the board was mere spectators, and thus the videotaping wasn’t allowed.
“To my mind, the question was whether a majority of the town board was functioning as a body. If it was, anybody could have recorded it,” Freeman said.
But in this case, “I don’t know of any law that someone had either the right to record or that someone could have been precluded from doing so,” he added.
To claim that the Putnam County town board was there as “mere spectators” while an elected official used the long arm of the law to prevent a citizen from recording a public meeting shows that Serino is doubling down on her ignorance.
So hopefully, the issue will go before a judge to set the record straight.
UPDATE II:Putnam County Sheriff later provided this statement, acknowledging his deputy made a mistake:
“First and foremost, I want to stress that the members of the Putnam County Sheriff’s Office are dedicated to fulfilling the oaths we take to uphold the Constitution, to safeguard citizens’ rights under the law and to keep the peace; indeed, our members put their lives and limbs on the line every day to protect and serve the community. Second, I always say that the Sheriff’s Office is a ‘learning organization,’ and we strive to take away from every action some insight into how we can improve the way we carry out our duties. Third, our members often have to react quickly when called upon to defuse conflicts, and in doing so they sometimes have to rely on incomplete, unclear, or conflicting information that is available in those moments.”
“According to what we have learned about the incident at the Putnam Valley Town Hall meeting, the deputy sheriff acted in good faith and with pure intentions in trying to defuse the situation. He acted in reliance upon the official’s announcement that a legal determination had been rendered that the citizen’s use of video recording was prohibited in that proceeding. The deputy acted with restraint, calm and courtesy in trying to keep the peace and to allow the meeting to proceed without disruption. I commend the citizen, too, for maintaining a calm demeanor during the incident.” “As frequently happens following incidents in which a police officer has to make a quick decision in a conflict situation, with the luxury of unpressured time to review all the facts and circumstances and the applicable law, we are later able to further assess the incident.
In light of what we now know, we are of the opinion that the citizen was acting within his rights to use video recording equipment at last evening’s meeting, and the deputy’s reliance upon the announced opinion of the official’s legal counsel to the contrary was misplaced, because that legal opinion does not appear to be in accord with the Open Meetings Law or the court cases interpreting it. We regret that the misunderstanding about the Open Meetings Law provisions occurred in this case.”
“I have directed my command staff to review with our members the provisions of the Open Meetings Law governing the recording of proceedings by citizens. My staff will also remind our members that, whenever the exigencies of a future situation do not make it impossible, before taking action to stop a citizen’s recording of a meeting they should seek supervisory guidance in assessing the validity of a ruling by a public body that the recording is prohibited.” “We continue to be committed to the proper and fair enforcement of the law and remain dedicated to our mission to safeguard the rights of all persons.”
But Serino has yet to make a public apology or public statement on this matter.