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Videotape ban based on incorrect advice

February 11, 2009|By ANDREW SCHOTZ

WASHINGTON COUNTY -- Relying on incorrect advice, three Western Maryland state representatives tried to prohibit a Cumberland, Md., man from videotaping a public meeting in Annapolis on Tuesday.

When Marc Nelson defended his right to videotape under the state's Open Meetings Act, two representatives -- including Del. LeRoy E. Myers Jr., R-Washington/Allegany -- left and the meeting dissolved.

However, Myers said Wednesday his attempt to stop Nelson from using his video camera was based on an opinion by William G. Somerville, the ethics counsel to the Maryland General Assembly, and Nelson is welcome to tape next time.

"Unfortunately, I gave them wrong advice," Somerville said Wednesday. In a follow-up letter to Myers, Somerville said he incorrectly relied on a restriction on distracting behavior at a public meeting as a reason to forbid citizen videotaping.

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The meeting's sudden end prevented the Allegany County Board of County Commissioners from talking to the delegation, said Jim Stakem, the board's president.

One hot issue up for discussion was a dispute between the commissioners and the sheriff that has led to the development of a new, competing police force.

Myers, Washington County's delegation chairman, said he was suspicious about a person who's not an "authorized" news gatherer videotaping a discussion of a sensitive topic and how the footage might be distributed or edited.

A Cumberland radio station reporter was at the meeting. A Cumberland Times-News reporter listened on speaker phone.

Nelson, a stay-at-home father, said his fondness of C-SPAN, which broadcasts Congress, inspired him to videotape public meetings and government events. He has posted 30 short clips on a Web page and plans to keep at it.

Maryland's Open Meetings Act requires government bodies to conduct business in public.

William Varga, a state assistant attorney general, said public bodies can limit videotaping so it isn't disruptive, but can't ban it outright.

Del. Kevin Kelly was the only delegation member to support Nelson's right to videotape the meeting, which was held in the Annapolis office of Sen. George C. Edwards, R-Garrett/Allegany/Washington.

Nelson said that as the meeting began and he set up a tripod, Myers, Beitzel and Edwards voted to keep him from videotaping. Kelly was opposed.

Nelson argued that state law supported him and he planned to videotape, but Myers and Beitzel walked out, before he could start.

"What happened yesterday was terrible," Kelly said Wednesday. "It was an affront to the citizenry."

Kelly said he offered to contact the attorney general's office for an instant opinion, but was told not to.

Edwards said he follows open meetings laws and Nelson could have observed the meeting, but Myers had an opinion backing his concern, so he voted with Myers.

Stakem said he knew who Nelson was, but the commissioners didn't speak up in deference to Edwards, who, as delegation chairman, was hosting the meeting.

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