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South King fire board stops citizen from videotaping public meeting | Fire chief confirms policy revision

South King Fire and Rescue's board of commissioners is at odds with a local resident — and an interpretation of state law — over videotaping public meetings.

At a special board meeting Nov. 4, chairman Bill Gates called attention to Jerry Galland, a resident of unincorporated King County who was filming the meeting. Gates asked the meeting's attendees if anyone objected to being filmed. Following an immediate closed executive session with an attorney, Gates told Galland to take down his video camera.

Joe Quinn, who provides legal counsel to South King Fire and Rescue, advised the board that Galland does not qualify as a media organization and therefore is not allowed to videotape board meetings. Quinn's conclusion is based on interpretation of the board's guideline 12.1, which says media such as "radio, television and photographic services" may freely record meetings. The board currently makes audio recordings of all meetings available to the public and allows the public to do the same.

Quinn said there is a difference between a media outlet and a private citizen who wants to videotape a meeting.

"The media are recognized instruments of the public," Quinn said on Monday. He said the media are held to higher standards in public and are unlikely to exploit people captured on videotape. "When you take an audio recording...you're not getting a physical likeness of the person in a medium you can use or transmit."

Quinn said such recordings could compromise public testimony by a citizen who did not give consent to be videotaped.

"If you allow completely unregulated videotaping, there's a chance it could have a chilling effect," Quinn said.

As a result of The Mirror's inquiry into this incident, the board of commissioners will revise its guidelines at a special meeting Nov. 15, Fire Chief Al Church confirmed Tuesday. The new guidelines will allow private citizens to videotape the board's public meetings, but prohibits videotaping of other private citizens who object, Church said.

Looking at the law

Bill Will, executive director of the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association, said there is no difference in the status between media and private citizens.

"The reporter is an agent of the public. They shouldn't have any more rights or privileges than the private citizen off the street," Will said. "You cannot prohibit anybody from videotaping the meeting."

According to the state's Open Public Meetings Act, conditions may not be placed upon the attendance of public meetings. Being allowed to attend a public meeting, but not being allowed to videotape it, can be interpreted as a condition.

"It's perfectly appropriate (to videotape) so long as they are not disruptive," said Timothy D. Ford, Assistant Attorney General for Government Accountability.

South King's board of commissioners is able to change its own policy. Citizens who want to enforce their rights could file a lawsuit and be entitled to attorney fees and costs, Ford said.

"It's the public attention that could bring about change," Ford said.

Galland was a District 30 candidate for the state Legislature this past summer. He also led an opposition effort against South King Fire and Rescue's Prop. 1, a proposed service benefit charge that failed in the August primary.

"All I was trying to do was accurately record what was going on so I could play it back," Galland said of the Nov. 4 board meeting. "These (fire commissioners) were elected by us. We voted for them to do our business in the public eye."

FYI

• The South King Fire and Rescue board of commissioners consists of five members who are elected by the public every six years. Current commissioners are chairman Bill Gates, vice-chairman James Fossos, Mark Freitas, Mark Thompson and John Rickert.

• According to a 1998 formal opinion by the state Attorney General: "A county does not have authority to ban video or sound recording of a meeting required to be open to the public by the Open Public Meetings Act (RCW 42.30); the county could regulate recording only to the extent necessary to preserve order at the meeting and facilitate public attendance."

• According to the current South King Fire and Rescue board of commissioners guideline 12.1, titled Media Representation at Board Meetings: "All public meetings of the board shall be open to the media, freely subject to recording by radio, television and photographic services at any time provided that such arrangements do not interfere with the orderly conduct of the meeting. Seating space shall be provided for the media at each public meeting."

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