PHOENIXVILLE — A misunderstanding of district policy and the state Sunshine Law led to a mix-up Tuesday regarding a resident taking video of the Phoenixville Area School Board budget meeting.
Douglas Trainor said he attended Tuesday night’s meeting with a camera and tripod to record the proceedings, as permitted under state law.
Trainor said he feels the board meeting minutes and corresponding video are released too late, and he prefers to record the meetings and post them immediately for the public to view.
“They don’t release the minutes or the video until after the decisions are made,” he said.
Trainor said he was approached by someone before the meeting Tuesday saying “it was district policy that such recording was not allowed and the reason was that they were videotaping.”
Nonetheless, Trainor left his equipment up and recorded the first minute of the meeting.
“We have a member of the public who has chosen to videotape,” said board President Josh Gould at the start of the meeting. “By policy, we do not allow that without permission. We prefer not to give permission because, in general, it can be taken and who knows what can happen?”
The board then went to a recess after Trainor did not stop recording.
“They didn’t forbid me,” from filming, Trainor said. “They gave me an option and I didn’t take it.”
Superintendent Alan Fegley then approached Trainor and told him that the meeting wouldn’t start again unless he took down his equipment.
At that point, Fegley also said he would call the police if Trainor didn’t stop recording.
Partly because he’d brought his 3-year-old daughter, Lulu, with him, Trainor said he decided to take his equipment down. However, he did stay and take in the meeting.
Trainor posted his ordeal to the Facebook group, “You know you’re from Phoenixville when...” where it was met with a flurry of comment.
Around mid-day Wednesday, Gould posted on the Facebook thread.
“I checked with the district solicitor today, and I owe Mr. Trainor and the public an apology. I misunderstood both the school district policy and the law with regard to videotaping public meetings. The state legislature is allowed to prohibit public taping if they televise public proceedings, but school districts are not allowed to do so,” Gould wrote. “This was an unintentional but inexcusable misunderstanding on my part. I was the chair of the meeting and it was my responsibility to fully understand the policy and law. I take full responsibility for that mistake on my part.”
The state Sunsine Law provides for citizens to record meetings with their own devices, but does also allow for public entities to create rules and guidelines “governing the use” of those devices.
Gould and Trainor ended up playing phone tag Wednesday but Trainor said he listened to the phone message the board president left.
“I will tell him I totally accept his apology and we’ll need to sit down and chat some time,” Trainor said.
Fegley said the police were only considered because they thought Trainor was potentially breaking the policy and/or law.
“The board has a right to ensure the orderly operation of the meeting,” Fegley explained.
Contacted by phone Wednesday, Fegley told 21st Century Media that the school district has seen some recordings of its meeting altered to mislead about what was said.
“We’ve had people only put up a little part to make a point,” without any context, Fegley said.
For his part, Trainor said he has concerns over how the district edits the meeting footage.
“We have three cameras at the meetings,” Fegley said. “You’re editing to flip from camera to camera.”
The only edits that are made combine footage to get better angles of who is speaking and no content is lost, he said.
Gould posted to the Facebook thread he still has concerns about people making misleading edits of meeting footage and recordings.
“I still worry about that, but I recognize that there is nothing I (nor) the district can do about it,” Gould wrote. “I hope that people will act responsibly, and again apologize for my mistake.”
Some of those in the Facebook thread talked about bringing their own cameras to Thursday night’s meeting.
Fegley said he’d welcome that.