Milton man receives award for asserting right to record school board meetings

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Jim Dayton
Tuesday, March 14, 2017

MILTON—For the past year, Lance Fena has lugged his boxy, 1980s-era General Electric video camera to nearly every Milton School Board meeting, positioned it on a side table and pressed record.

The first time he did it, on April 11, 2016, it caused board members to adjourn early, believing Fena did not have the right to tape their meetings.

Nearly a year later, Fena, 55, will be honored with a Citizen Openness Award from the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council after he stood up for his right to record school board proceedings.

His understanding of the state's open meetings law—he knew the exact statute number when the board questioned him—sparked quick change at the school district. The board streamed its next meeting live online and continues to do so, archiving its videos on YouTube.

Fena is one of two citizen recipients of this year's award. The other winner, John Krueger, is involved in a lawsuit with the Appleton Area School District after it prevented him from attending committee meetings, according to a release.

Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, said protecting access to information often comes down to ordinary citizens. Fena asserted his rights and got the district to change its behavior, Lueders said.

Fena, Krueger and other winners will be honored in a March 30 ceremony at the Wisconsin Watchdog Awards Dinner in Madison.

Before Fena started bringing the video camera, the town of Milton resident grew concerned with the school board over a contract's disputed language. The district agreed in July 2015 to hire a construction firm as a design consultant for a facility needs study, as previously reported by The Gazette.

But the district hired J.P. Cullen as the construction manager for the entire project, not just the initial design phase. When and why the contract language changed was uncertain, as reported earlier by The Gazette.

When the district's agenda for April 11, 2016, did not match the one published in the Milton Courier, the district's paper of record, Fena had had enough and took matters into his own hands, he said.

“My personal feeling was that the school district was putting forward what they wanted the public to see … (which) was different than what was actually happening in reality,” Fena said. “I felt I had to have my own recording as a truer means of record-keeping that I could fall back on.”

When he brought his camera for the first time, District Administrator Tim Schigur and School Board President Jon Cruzan told Fena he could not record and left the room to discuss the matter. After a delay, the meeting began and Fena was allowed to record, he said.

Halfway through the meeting, former board member Rob Roy said the camera was distracting him. Roy continued to express his frustration, and the board unanimously decided to adjourn early.

The district realized its error a few days later and had its own video recording in place by the next meeting.

Schigur could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Fena didn't think the situation was a big deal until he spoke with other residents. Some had given up on the school district and believed it was no longer listening to their concerns, he said.

He has rarely replayed his video recordings. They mostly serve as a backup source in case something controversial happens, he said.

“I am always a person that is for open meetings and open record laws,” Fena said. “I believe everyone needs to know what's going on. It's their right.”

Openness is especially important in Milton these days because of another potential facilities referendum, which could happen this summer. If citizens don't make an attempt to learn what's happening and raise their voices, they can't complain about the result, Fena said.

In the year since the original incident, the school board handles its business more professionally and has done its best to improve meeting access for those who cannot attend, he said.

But he still has trouble fully trusting the board after his past experiences. Until that changes, the old video camera that Fena said “fails to stop” working will still be at meetings, its red light turned on.

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