News - April 6, 2011

Atherton meetings in YouTube spotlight

by Renee Batti

Although many local city council meetings are televised or webcast for the benefit of residents who aren't able to attend them, the Atherton City Council decided in 2004 that it would be too expensive to contract with the local cable station to televise its monthly meetings.

Viewing meetings remotely now may be an option, at least through budget season, thanks to the Atherton Police Officers Association's videotaping of "select" town meetings and posting them on YouTube.

The association (APOA) announced the YouTube postings of two meetings — the March 7 meeting of the Finance Committee and the council's March 16 meeting — on its website on March 19. Officer Brad Mills, the APOA president, said in an email that the association wanted to provide members and town residents access to meetings they were unable to attend.

He said that deciding on which future meetings to videotape "is a fluid process." But concerns about the town's finances and recent talk about the possibility of outsourcing the police department make it likely that more meetings at which the budget is discussed are priorities for videotaping.

"Our members are interested about the town budget issues and the long-term financial stability/security of the town," Officer Mills wrote. Citing many years of service to the town by some officers and police staff, he added, "Our members want to see the town of Atherton get through this.

"Also, this is something that has the potential to directly affect our (members') home budget and family life."

The reaction to the videotaping by some posters on the Almanac's online Town Square forum suggested that at least a few people were nervous that the police officers' organization was behind the camera. And Mayor Jim Dobbie was quoted in a local newspaper as saying the taping is inappropriate. (Mr. Dobbie could not be reached for comment before press time.)

But several residents and one council member who talked to the Almanac said the taping is legal, and they were comfortable with it, although some cautionary thoughts were expressed.

Resident Jon Buckheit, a regular council meeting attendee who is suing the town and three police officers, said, "My sense is the police union is recording these meetings to ensure issues that are important to them are brought to the attention of their supporters in the community.

"Given the importance of providing an environment in which members of the public can speak forthrightly, if an unintended consequence of this decision is some individuals feeling they cannot, I trust the police officers would reconsider their decision."

Mr. Buckheit said he doesn't believe the association's intent is intimidation. But "it may keep people from speaking frankly about outsourcing" police services during budget discussions, he said.

Councilwoman Kathy McKeithen said, "I don't have a problem with it at all," adding that many city council meetings are broadcast, something she had pushed for in the past for Atherton. She said she would prefer that the town provide the service, but it's unlikely to do so because of costs.

Ms. McKeithen noted that, with the town discussing tough financial strategies that include outsourcing police and other town services, the timing of the videotaping decision might raise questions. "If there's another motivation behind it (other than transparency), that would be unfortunate," she said. "But I'm not uncomfortable with it."


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