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RTM Rules Goes Off the Record

The RTM Rules Committee asks TV79 to turn off the cameras when they review the minutes of controversial Sept. 14 meeting.

Representative Town Meeting Rules Committee Chair and Moderator Karen Armour said she had the TV79 viewers’ best interest in mind when she went off the record to discuss the minutes of the Sept. 14 meeting.

“In my effort to not have boring television, I have been spoken to by Mr. Cameron and won’t be doing that again,” said Armour (District VI).

Jim Cameron is Program Director for TV79, Darien’s local government channel. Many Darien residents rely on the station’s “gavel to gavel” coverage of public town hall meetings; the camera goes on when the meeting is called to order, and goes off when adjourned. But that wasn't the case at the Oct. 5 RTM Rules Committee meeting, which Cameron says is a cause for concern.

At 8 p.m. the meeting was called to order, and the first agenda item, “Approve minutes of Sept. 14” was brought to the table. That was when Armour asked TV79 camerawoman, Deb Randall, to turn off the camera.

“We could take a few minutes to approve them. You could actually turn off the camera; we probably should have done that before we started,” said Armor.

Randall complied, which she should not have done, said Cameron. He said Randall attributes the mistake to inexperience and that she does not remember any conversation that ensued.

The meeting will air on TV79 starting Friday, Oct. 9—with the break—and a program note explaining the pause and apologizing for the mistake.

There are two reasons why the break in coverage is causing concern.

First, it’s a breach of the Freedom of Information Act, which says that any hearing or other proceeding of a public agency, excluding executive sessions, is open to the public and that the news media may photograph and broadcast those meetings.

Second, the minutes are part and parcel of the highly controversial Sept. 14 meeting. It was during that meeting that the Option to Lease at 35 Leroy Avenue (site of the former library and proposed affordable housing development) came under scrutiny, and the Rules Committee engaged in a heated conversation, rife with innuendo and suspicion. And it was at that meeting that the committee voted unanimously to include an “Informational Update” on the general RTM’s Sept. 28 agenda, led by lawyer and RTM Town Government Structure and Administration Committee member Samuel Schoonmaker (District IV).

The minutes were also three weeks late. Under FOIA, minutes are to be available to the public within seven days of the meeting to which they refer. Armour said that RTM Rules Member Jack Davis (District V) who was recording the meeting ran into “computer problems,” and could not post the minutes sooner.

The TV79 crew had its own technical difficulties that night, and as a result, only half of the Sept. 14 meeting was recorded.

“I don’t think Karen had any sinister motive in what happened,” said Cameron of Armour’s request to turn off the cameras, Oct. 5. “Given the importance of those minutes, and given that they were late in arriving, and given that the Rules Committee has come under increased scrutiny lately, it was a dumb mistake on her part.”

RTM member John Price (District I) said, “nothing happened,” during those five to ten off-the-record minutes.

“We just read the minutes; because it was a very controversial meeting, we all wanted the chance to read them,” said Price. “I’m not even sure anyone said anything.”

Armour said the committee was “scrupulously careful,” not to talk until back on the record and that her motivation to turn the cameras off was to save the viewers from a “boring” ten minutes of dead air.

“I have no illusions that it was a good idea to turn the camera off,” said Armour. “I will be less concerned about the viewers henceforth.”

Cameron said he does not want to make a mountain out of a molehill.

“I just want people to know that nobody tells Channel 79 to turn the camera off. Period.”

Carolyn Schoonmaker October 09, 2009 at 10:00 PM
The Rules Committee met openly and several members of the public attended. The fact that the camera was not rolling to satisfy Channel 79 viewers does not mean that the meeting was not complying with the Freedom Of Information act. How did Darien government manage to hold open meetings before Channel 79 was operating?

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