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3/5/2018 6:51:00 PM
Counselor: Cass County violated open door law

Mitchell Kirk, Pharos-Tribune Staff Writer

A Cass County government property's cellphone policy violates Indiana's open door law, according to the state's public access counselor.

Elizabeth Thomas, Twelve Mile, filed a complaint with the Indiana Public Access Counselor indicating she was denied access at the Cass County Commissioners' Dec. 4 and 18, 2017 meetings. Her complaint states the county broke the law by prohibiting people from bringing cellphones and cameras into the Cass County Government Building, where commissioners meetings are held.

The commissioners passed an ordinance in March 2017 requiring government building visitors to leave their cellphones with security unless they have written permission from a county official to bring them in. Officials were motivated to set the rules to prevent disruptions cellphones have caused in the building in the past.

At least one video camera has been present in the audience at recent commissioners meetings and videos of the meetings have been posted online. Meetings have drawn increased attendances and contention because of a proposed wind energy project.

Paige Woodhouse, Royal Center, wrote in an email that she brought a video camera to the commissioners' Jan. 2 meeting, but added a security guard initially told her she couldn't bring it in. Woodhouse went on to write that she was allowed to bring the camera after Lora Redweik, Twelve Mile, showed the guard the part of the state's open door law that permits recording video of public meetings.

Cass County Attorney Jeff Stanton sent documents to the state's public access counselor responding to Thomas' complaint on Jan. 30. He maintains in his response that the county does not prohibit individuals from recording public meetings. Stanton goes on to claim that the Dec. 4 and 18 meetings were recorded and posted on YouTube. Thomas called that claim false in an email on Saturday.

Videos of the Dec. 4 and 18 meetings could not readily be found on YouTube Sunday, while videos of the commissioners' January and February meetings could.

Stanton maintained in an interview on Sunday that he saw video being recorded in the audience of the Dec. 4 and 18 meetings. He added it had been relayed to him that video of those meetings was on YouTube but acknowledged Sunday he could not find them on the website.

The county's response to Thomas' complaint goes on to refer to the government building's cellphone policy, the reasons behind it and points to other counties with similar practices. Thomas never approached the commissioners, their administrative assistant or Stanton for written permission to bring a cellphone into the government building to record a public meeting, according to the county's response.

An affidavit signed by Phil Loos, head of security at the government building, is included in the county's response. It indicates no one requested to use their cellphone to record the Dec. 4 or Dec. 18 commissioners meetings.

The government building's policy does not prevent people from recording meetings as long as protocol is followed, according to the county's response.

Indiana Public Access Counselor Luke Britt wrote in his advisory opinion that while he sympathizes to challenges cellphones pose for the government building, most people use their cellphones "as their primary device for recording video or audio."

Cass County "is adding an additional requirement of either purchasing a separate tape or video recorder or" getting written permission to use a cellphone, Britt's opinion continues.

Requiring people to get written permission to record a public meeting with their cellphone "is effectively a barrier to access...," the opinion goes on to state.

Britt concludes by stating it's his opinion that the Cass County Commissioners have violated Indiana's open door law.

An advisory opinion does not require action. Stanton said whether it prompts a change to the government building's cellphone policy would be up to the commissioners. He emphasized the policy was never established to prevent access, but prevent disturbances. Stanton added officials will likely discuss the issue with an attorney specializing in public access law.

Thomas wrote in an email Sunday that she hopes it won't be necessary to file a lawsuit against the county in an effort to get the policy changed. She added she is seeking legal counsel in case it's needed.

In her Saturday email, Thomas also challenged Stanton's claim in his response that meeting attendees have used tripods to aid in their video recording. While Thomas agrees tripods have been used at meetings, she claims they started being used in February, contradicting the Jan. 30 date on Stanton's response.

Stanton maintained Sunday that he's seen a tripod used at commissioners meetings before completing his response.

Thomas also took issue with part of Stanton's response that states tape recorders have been placed on a table near the front of the room at commissioners meetings. In her Saturday email, Thomas wrote she hasn't seen tape recorders on a table near the front of the room, nor does video of recent commissioners meetings reveal such devices. Stanton clarified in Sunday's interview that his response indicates he's seen the practice carried out at commissioners meetings during his time as county attorney, not necessarily at recent meetings.

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