After debate & review, public can film meetings

LYNDHURST

The Lyndhurst governing body squelched an attempt by a resident to record its June 23 meeting but the township has since reconsidered.

Here’s what happened:

At about 10:30 a.m. Friday, June 23, members of the township Board of Commissioners had just concluded a private session in the caucus room and emerged for a special public meeting.

After reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, the commissioners were getting ready to conduct theirbusiness when Mayor/Commissioner Robert Giangeruso noticed a man in the back of the chambers having set up a video camera and tripod.

Giangeruso directed the man to stop what he was doing because “you don’t have permission” to record and the then-interim township attorney Carmine Alampi recommended that he comply, which he then did.

Later, the man – who identified himself as Monu Sohal – emailed The Observer and asserted that the township’s action constituted “a violation of my civil rights” and “a violation of the Open Public Meetings Act.”

Sohal cited the case of “Tarus v. Borough of Pine Hill” – decided March 7, 2007 – in which the N.J. Supreme Court reviewed a dispute at two municipal proceedings in 2000 at which “disputes arose between plaintiff [Robert Wayne Tarus, then age 15] and defendants [Pine Hill mayor and Borough Council] concerning plaintiff’s effort to videotape the council meetings.”

At each of those meetings, because Tarus refused to stop filming, he was removed and placed under arrest, although he was subsequently found not guilty of disorderly conduct. Tarus then filed a lawsuit against the borough, arguing that he has the right, under the common law or the New Jersey Constitution to video tape those public meetings.

In its decision, the court found for the plaintiff, saying: “We affirm the Appellate Division’s determination that there exists a common law right to videotape a municipal council meeting subject to reasonable restrictions …

Sohal claims that, “There are no restrictions in the Lyndhurst [township] ordinances addressing video recording of Town Hall proceedings. So there doesn’t arise the question of ‘prior permission.’’’

Sohal wrote that the governing body didn’t want residents to see the recording for political reasons because it was going to “nullify the promotions of six police officers because they had been promoted by the previous police commissioner John Montillo an action which, he said, will be “extremely unpopular” among residents.

Sohal pledged to “file appropriate court cases over this” and to take up the matter with the county prosecutor and the state attorney general.

But now it looks like the prospect for legal action will be moot because Alampi – who was named township attorney at the special meeting – told The Observer last week he was wrong to have backed up the mayor in preventing Sohal from filming.

Alampi said he was under the impression that Lyndhurst had an ordinance on the books that anyone who wanted to videotape a public meeting “had to give at least limited notice” to the township about their intentions to film before being allowed to do so.

“I was wrong about that,” the attorney said. “We are going to allow the use of electronic devices because that is the law. The gentleman [Sohal] is actually right. And I am sending a letter to him saying that he does have the right to film. And we in the township will organize a location in the township chambers where the taping is not disruptive.”

Bottom line, Alampi amplified, is this: “The law is clear and we are going to be in compliance.”

Ron Leir | Observer Correspondent

Ron Leir has been a newspaperman since the late ’60s, starting his career with The Jersey Journal, having served as a summer reporter during college. He became a full-time scribe in February 1972, working mostly as a general assignment reporter in all areas except sports, including a 3-year stint as an assistant editor for entertainment, features, religion, etc. He retired from the JJ in May 2009 and came to The Observer shortly thereafter. He is also a part-time actor, mostly on stage, having worked most recently with the Kearny-based W.H.A.T. Co. and plays Sunday softball in Central Park, N.Y.