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Our Views: Milton School Board arriving late on issue of recording meetings

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Gazette editorial board
Saturday, April 16, 2016

The Milton School Board and district officials have a credibility problem.

A survey of residents was poorly distributed. Officials seemed to ignore results in a now-scuttled facilities referendum plan, and they further raised eyebrows in the way they chose citizens for an advisory committee.

Troubles bubbled over Monday when resident Lance Fena arrived at the school board meeting armed with a large video camera.

Superintendent Tim Schigur told Fena he couldn't tape the meeting.

Wrong.

Fena rightly cited a statute that says a government body should “make a reasonable effort to accommodate” anyone wanting to film, as long as it doesn't interfere “with the conduct of the meeting or the rights of the participants.”

Schigur and board President Jon Cruzan briefly left the room, then returned. Cruzan warned those assembled that the meeting was being recorded and the board had no control of how the recording might be used.

An hour into the meeting, board member Rob Roy announced he was uncomfortable with the video recording, that he didn't trust Fena and that, because the recording might change board behavior, he thought it wasn't permitted under statute.

Wrong again.

Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, told reporter Jake Magee in Thursday's Gazette that recordings might actually improve behavior.

Roy also suggested someone could twist or clip parts of the recording, post them on social media and make the board or district look bad.

Strike three.

“The law requires citizens be able to make a tape,” Lueders says. “It doesn't matter what they want to use it for. It doesn't matter if the public officials like them. They need to get with the program.”

Coincidentally, Cruzan, Schigur and district Communications Supervisor Jerry Schuetz discussed coverage concerns with Gazette staffers Tuesday in a previously arranged visit.

They questioned why The Gazette keeps beating up officials about mishandling of last year's survey. Sorry, but a journalist must put stories into perspective, and reminding readers about missteps in this winding referendum path provides context.

Schigur now says the district likely will video record meetings. Given all that has transpired, including board member Janet Green's abrupt resignation without explanation April 13, it's surprising that no citizen tried recording meetings before.

It's also surprising that the district hasn't been recording them, if nothing else to support the “transparency” that these officials repeatedly professed and to protect the board from—as Cruzan put it Tuesday—“sinister” use of citizen recordings. Full recordings might help residents understand why Green, who questioned some decisions, quit. Janesville's school board and city council meetings are recorded. The city of Milton, where Schuetz worked, also records council meetings. Besides, Schuetz is well paid, and he admitted the district has the needed equipment.

The board adjourned Monday's meeting early on Shelly Crull-Hanke's motion.

As Cruzan tried to reason Tuesday, Fena's plan surprised the board. It would have been “common courtesy” to alert it in advance.

Sure, but not required by law.

Schigur argued that Fena was within his rights but the board was also within its rights to adjourn early.

Sure, but doing so only furthers distrust.

Schuetz pointed out that when the statute was written, social media and technology to edit video weren't like today.

Sure, but that doesn't matter.

Wisconsin Association of School Boards attorney Barry Forbes told Magee that residents need not explain why they're recording. Paul Ferguson, assistant attorney general in the Wisconsin Department of Justice Office of Open Government, compared video recording to open records requests. The requester isn't required to explain the need for the records. Ferguson said a resident could even edit clips in ways that take statements out of context.

Schuetz suggested officials must consider privacy of the board's student representatives and kids who might get awards or speak.

“It's new to us,” he said. “So we have to figure out covering all the bases to make sure that we're being as transparent as we possibly can while protecting the privacy interests of students and those who may not be comfortable with being recorded.”

Dubious at best. These are public meetings.

As Lueders advised: “Deal with it.”

 



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