Citizens’ admission refers to the right of assembly in the community hall | Herald Community Newspapers

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At the end of the regular meeting of the village board of trustees on September 26, Amil Virani left the community hall perplexed and outraged. At the center of his anger was a moment that for him overshadowed an otherwise fairly routine government meeting, when Mayor Edwin Fare stopped the public comment session because Virani was recording the meeting on his cellphone.

“Amil, you have to stop the recording. There’s no recording in this room,” Fare said.

The move soon drew criticism from local residents, including Virani, 21, who say Fare violated the state’s open gatherings law by denying him the right to make records at a public gathering.

The Committee on Open Government and the courts are very unanimous on this, says Attorney Jake Forken of the New York State Committee on Open Government: “Anyone can record open meetings so long as the use of the recording device is not disruptive or intrusive.”

When Virani mentioned the Open Meetings Act in his defense to Fare, the mayor backed off and refused to proceed with the public comment portion of the meeting until Virani turned off the recording feature on his phone.

“It says on all doors that there is no record,” Fare told Virani. “I’m glad you find it funny to break a policy. You may obtain (through a Freedom of Information Act request) a recording of this meeting. You have the full record with audio and video.”

Village attorney Michael Hopkins upheld the mayor’s decision at the meeting, noting that village officials were already recording the meeting via Zoom.

But Forken rejects this explanation. The public has the right to record a public meeting “regardless of whether the public body also makes a recording of the meeting”. When resident Jenna Rositano pressed Hopkins to provide legal justification for the decision, he declined to say. “I’m not going to give legal advice to the people in the audience,” he countered.

Both the mayor’s and the village attorney’s remarks drew sharp reactions from the open government’s watchdogs. “The public’s right to record a public meeting is absolute,” said Carolyn James, the Society of Professional Journalists’ freedom of information state chair.

“It is a sad comment that officials are unaware of, or are ignoring, their responsibilities in relation to this access,” James added. “And that her position is summarily endorsed by her legal counsel, who either don’t know the law or choose to ignore it. Shame on you.”

“It’s unfortunate that the mayor doesn’t understand the Open Meetings Law,” said Paul Wolfe, president of the New York Coalition for Open Government. “Since 2011, the public has had a legal right to record meetings of a public body. The mayor should not become defensive when someone is recording him on public affairs and should welcome such recording as a way for people to see the village head’s work.”

Forken said Virani could take his alleged grievance to court by filing an Article 78 to enforce the village’s future compliance with the law, something Virani is considering to combat efforts by the mayor, which he sees as efforts to “to silence and intimidate residents”.

But that may not be necessary. “At the end of the regular meeting on September 26, 2022, there was a discussion about recording public meetings,” Fare said. “I followed an outdated clue on the meeting room doors. It has since been resolved and the signs have been removed.” He added: “In this case, the official meeting has concluded and we were in the public comment area. Regardless, future recordings will not be stopped by the public. We apologize for the confusion.”

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