Order to prevent video, audio recordings, still photos during public meeting violation of state law

From the Preston County News & Journal, May 23rd:

West Virginia, like every other state in the nation, has certain rules that govern what would be considered a public meeting. And in those rules there are also provisions allowing the media to report or cover public meetings. The state law or statute is officially called the Open Governmental Proceedings Act, but many refer to it as Open Meetings or “Sunshine” Act.

According to the Open Governmental Proceedings Act, which can be found on the West Virginia Attorney General’s website, it “was enacted to ensure that the proceedings of all public agencies are conducted in an open and public manner, so that the people may be informed about the actions of their governments and retain control over them.”

Earlier this week, on Tuesday, May 19, Public Service District (PSD) No. 2 and the Kingwood Water Works (KWW) held normal meetings (PSD No. 2 at 6:30 and KWW immediately after). A handful of water customers attended the PSD No. 2 meeting, along with Preston County News & Journal Staff Writer Theresa Marthey. Just before the meeting got underway, KWW Board Chairman Bill Bolyard told those in attendance, including the media, that no video or audio recordings, as well as still photographs, were permitted during the public meeting. This was a clear violation of the Open Governmental Proceedings Act.

“Any member of a public or governmental body who willfully and knowingly violates the Act is guilty of a misdemeanor, and upon conviction may be fined up to $500.00. A second or subsequent conviction for violating the Act can result in a fine of between $100.00 and $1,000.00,” Open Government Proceedings Act, paragraph titled “Penalties,” Page 2.

It should be noted that Theresa Marthey was the only member of the media covering this meeting. All of the news, sports and feature staff working for the Preston County News & Journaltypically are required to take still and, in many cases, video recordings of public meetings and other events deemed important by the editorial board. Further, reporters use audio recording devices as a tool to complement written notes.

No matter the reason, the order given by KWW Chairman Boylard was wrong. The public in Preston County has a right to know exactly how its government operates and preventing the Preston County News & Journal or any other media from recording or taking still photos gives the impression that they have something to hide. The Open Government Proceedings Act states clearly, “the benefits of openness inure to both the public affected by governmental decision-making and the decision makers themselves.”

The Preston County News & Journal is the people’s voice and watchdog. Our very existence is to provide information on subjects and events that the general public does not typically have the opportunity to attend for themselves. Silencing, or more accurately, blindfolding the media is against everything we hold dear as American citizens.

We urge both Kingwood City Council and the Preston County Commission to mandate that all public bodies operating in the county follow state law as written in the Open Governmental Proceedings Act.

The handbook is available for download at West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey’s website (www.ago.wv.gov/Pages/default.aspx).

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