Legislation would require towns and school districts to video record meetings

May 18, 2018

Municipalities and school boards across New Jersey would be required to video record their meetings and then post the recordings on their websites under legislation penned by a Burlington County lawmaker.

Assemblywoman Carol Murphy, D-7th of Mount Laurel, introduced the measure in March and has pushed for its approval, arguing that video recording meetings is an inexpensive way to boost local government transparency and participation.

The measure would amend the state’s Open Public Meetings Act to require all municipal and school board meetings to be video recorded and posted on the local government websites. It would also require closed session meeting minutes to be posted on the websites once they are determined to no longer be confidential.

“The idea is so these folks who can’t attend meetings know what’s going on (with their local government),” said Murphy. “Most of our municipal buildings and local governments have the capability to videotape, so it shouldn’t be any real hardship.”

But some lawmakers and local government representatives aren’t so sure the legislation won’t create a burden for towns and school boards.

The issue of the expense was debated briefly Monday during a hearing on the measure before the Assembly State and Local Government Committee, which voted 4-1 with one abstention to advance the bill to the Assembly Appropriations Committee for further consideration.

The committee also approved a second open government bill Murphy sponsored to require municipal governments to accept complaints via their websites and deliver electronic notices, alerts and announcements to residents who request them through email, text messages or social media.

Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll, R-25th of Morris Township, voted “no” on both measures, arguing that they were both unfunded mandates and therefore unconstitutional.

“If we think it’s a good idea, let’s bite the bullet and pay for it,” Patrick Carroll said during the hearing, adding that he heard from local officials in his district that storing video files on their websites could become expensive because the files take up large amounts of space.

He said linking to a free site like YouTube.com may be a better solution but that the mandate that all municipal meetings be recorded might still be a burden.

Officials from the New Jersey State League of Municipalities and the New Jersey School Boards Association said the intent of the bill was good, but that they had many of the same concerns as Patrick Carroll.

“We are concerned it is an unfunded mandate, not all municipalities have recording equipment or resources,” said Lori Buckelew, a senior legislative analyst with the New Jersey League. “You also need resources to operate it.”

John Burns, of the New Jersey School Boards Association, said the association doesn’t believe video recording should be mandatory. If it is required, he said it should be mandated for the state and county governments as well.

“If it’s good for school board and municipalities (to video record), shouldn’t it be good for all (government) bodies,” Burns said.

Meetings of the full Senate and Assembly are video recorded and posted on the Office of Legislative Services website, along with audio recordings of the legislative committee hearings.

Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo, who chairs the State and Local Government Committee, said he believes many municipal governments and school boards are already video recording their meetings as a service to residents.

“I think it’s good government and a good way to be transparent,” said Mazzeo, D-2nd of Northfield.

In Burlington County, at least six municipalities already video record their council or committee meetings, according to a Burlington County Times survey. Most all others record only the audio and only some post that audio on their town’s website.

Chesterfield Committeewoman Andrea Katz attended Monday’s legislative hearing and spoke in favor of requiring video recording, arguing that it is worth the small expense.

“When talking to my constituents, I find people are very interested in what happens in our public meeting, but it’s hard to get to these meetings. We’ve all got family commitments; it’s hard. But they want to know what’s happening,” Katz said. “We want to be able to know what’s going on with our governing bodies. It builds trust, which is very important.”

Mazzeo agreed but said he planned to speak to Murphy about possible amendments to try to make it easier for towns and school districts to implement.

“I don’t want to put an unfair burden on municipalities as far as cost,” he said. “There’s more conversation that needs to be done on this bill.”

Reached Tuesday, Murphy said she was open to amendments and was seriously considering whether additional public meetings should be included. She also said she was pursuing a funding source to help cover local expenses.

“I’m looking at pursuing a funding source to resolve any potential unfunded mandate concerns,” Murphy said in a statement. “New Jersey residents are all entitled to full transparency.”

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