By: Jeff Epstein, Editor, Citizens’ Media TV
Edited by: Ben Szioli
HAINESPORT, NJ — On Tuesday, September 12th, 2017, Citizens’ Media TV livestreamed the Township Committee meeting in Hainesport, New Jersey. The meeting contained a forty-minute presentation by a New Jersey State Police Officer. The video and an article about the meeting were published the next day, on Wednesday, September 13th. On Thursday the 14th, we received a message from the New Jersey State Police, as delivered by Hainesport Township Administrator Paula Kosko:
The NJ State Police have requested removal of an [REDACTED]’s presentation from the Hainesport Township Committee Meeting video dated September 12, 2017 as there is sensitive operational information that may adversely affect their operations (staffing shortage, etc.). Please confirm receipt of this email and a response to the NJSP request.
This was the first time that we had received a request of this kind. Since the information in the presentation was not directly relevant to any of the stories that we had been following, it did not strike us as a devastating loss of information. Here was our response:
Information presented at a public meeting should be part of the public record. If Trooper [REDACTED] requested no recording at the time, I certainly would have complied.
That said, the presentation will be removed from the video this weekend.
We knew something was off — but not enough to do the right thing. Naively and impulsively, we edited the presentation out of the video and deleted the original Facebook Live (editing Facebook Live videos is impossible). We still have the raw footage, including the presentation.
Only after complying did we realize the enormity of our mistake. One of our most recent articles strongly criticizes a township for not treating public records with the care that is required. Yet here we are, doing almost the same thing: irretrievably altering footage of a public event, without due process, because someone in a position of power asked us to.
We contacted the officer by phone to ask about the “sensitive operational information.” He said the presentation contained “mildly sensitive” information intended only to be seen by those in attendance. He was concerned that if it were shared more widely, it could put the community at risk.
We told the officer that our video had already been edited to remove the presentation but that we still privately and securely held a copy of the raw footage. He said, while that’s fine for now, “two years from now, three years from now, the information might once again get out into the public sphere and jeopardize the community. No one wants that.”
The officer also told us that he notified township officials in advance that the presentation contained sensitive information. Hainesport Administrator Kosko asserts that she was unaware of this. She was told in advance that the presentation was going to happen (and asked to provide a screen for it), but she was not told of any sensitive information until two days after the meeting — when she received the request that was forwarded onto Citizens’ Media TV.
Speaking of the original request, as seen at the top of this article: We OPRA requested all correspondence between the township and the officer, as it relates to this story. There was none: Kosko told us that the request was a close-as-possible paraphrase of what the officer told her in a verbal conversation.
The township regularly records the meetings, but only in audio form. We asked if the township was asked to delete the presentation from their own recording. Kosko said no. In other words, any information deleted from our video would ultimately be accessible to anyone through a New Jersey Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request. In addition, the slides projected in the presentation, as seen in our video, are almost entirely blurry, meaning there is little distinction between our video and the township’s audio.
As we confirmed in an OPRA request, Kosko also reached out to another person who video-recorded the meeting, in an attempt to get them to comply. As of this writing, the person has not responded and their video has not been taken down or altered. In this person’s video, the slides happen to be clearer than in ours.
Public records experts
We discussed the matter with Gavin Rozzi, a journalist and the editor of Ocean County Politics. Rozzi has submitted hundreds of OPRA requests at all levels of government. He has also successfully litigated complaints of OPRA non-compliance, both in Superior Court and at the New Jersey Government Records Council. He gave us this statement:
The New Jersey State Police’s request for Citizens’ Media TV to remove a portion of their Hainesport Township public meeting video was not on legally solid ground.
Because the video was filmed at a public meeting, Citizens’ Media TV had a common-law right to film what transpired at the public meeting, in accordance with a body of case law that includes two prominent New Jersey State Supreme Court cases.
The officer should have been aware that his remarks would be broadcast to the general public when he addressed citizens at a public meeting with the Hainesport Township Committee. If the information that was disclosed is truly that of a sensitive nature, then perhaps it was not an appropriate venue to share those remarks.
We also spoke with John Paff, a board member of The New Jersey Foundation For Open Government (NJFOG) and one of the state’s premier experts on the OPRA law. He gave us a statement as well:
If truly sensitive information was presented by the Trooper, the governing body ought to have sought to close the meeting (i.e. go into closed or executive session) in accordance with the Open Public Meetings Act. Since the governing body didn’t close the meeting, anything discussed at the public meeting was fair game for wide distribution.
The New Jersey State Police (NJSP) retracts their request
Exactly one week after the initial request, we received a phone call from Sergeant First Class Jeffrey Flynn of the NJSP Public Information Office. SFC Flynn told us that all further communication would continue through his office and that the original officer would no longer be available to communicate with.
Officer Flynn also said that Citizens’ Media TV was welcome to publicly post the entire video. He confirmed that there was, in fact, no sensitive information anywhere in the presentation.
We asked the following questions:
- Why were we asked to remove the presentation from our video?
- If there ever is a situation where genuinely sensitive information is inadvertently revealed in a public venue, what procedure is followed to get it removed from recordings/inform journalists of such?
- What are the consequences for an NJSP staff member that requests information be removed or edited out of a public record, without following these procedures?
- What are the consequences for an NJSP staff member that falsely claims information to be sensitive when it has not been deemed as such?
- Finally, what steps will be taken to prevent this from happening again?
Here is the entirety of Officer Flynn’s response, which only addresses our second question:
Any request to a media outlet regarding the editing or removal of State Police related content on their website, paper, or social media platforms would come from the New Jersey State Police Public Information Bureau.
We were also informed of our right to file a complaint if we felt mistreated. We have no interest in doing that.
Before the retraction and before learning about the NJSP’s Public Information Office, much of our week was spent learning our rights. Although no longer applicable to our situation, we hope those who face a similar situation will find the information instructive.
Our first mistake was editing the video before taking the time to learn our rights and understanding the correct NJSP procedure when sensitive information is inadvertently revealed to a journalist. Doing either of these things would have revealed how unusual the situation was. Since we already edited the video before learning these things, we were prepared to leave the edited video (without the presentation) up “as a courtesy.”
If the NJSP wished to keep this sensitive information out of public view, an injunction would be required. An injunction is a temporary order that gives the NJSP the time they need to provide a more formal request, giving both Citizens’ Media TV and the NJSP an opportunity to be heard in court.
Had we made it to court, our goal would not have been to convince the judge that the information was not sensitive, nor would we have demanded that the public must see it. The entirety of our statement would have been the facts exactly as laid out in this article. We trust the NJSP’s representative would have made the case that the information was sensitive and that the judge would make the proper decision.
If the information were ruled to be sensitive, we would have immediately deleted it from all of our copies. Otherwise, the full video, including the presentation, would then be released to the public.
It is the duty of the police to protect the community from harm. It is the duty of journalists and citizens to protect the freedom of the press and the public’s right to know. Following this process maintains that balance.
A final note: We originally offered to stop our recording had the officer requested it during the meeting. We now know that this request would have been a violation of the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA).
Speculation and sponsorship: the Hainesport Democrats
In the interest of full context, the reader should also know the following:
Citizens’ Media TV has livestreamed more than a hundred events since we began in early 2016, but last week’s Hainesport meeting was the first for which we had a paid sponsor: the Hainesport Democrats. For more than two decades, every member of the Hainesport committee has been Republican.
|Citizens’ Media TV coverage of the September 12th, 2017 meeting was sponsored by the Hainesport Democrats, who “firmly believe in transparency, truth and open government for the residents.”|
There is speculation by a Democratic-leaning Facebook page called BurlCo Watch that the original request may actually have been part of an “agenda” among the Republican-dominated Hainesport Committee to sabotage and embarrass our Democratic sponsors — and especially their two committee candidates. As should now be clear, we did not sneak into some private meeting and secretly record the police. We recorded a public meeting, as is our, and anybody’s, right.
We spoke to the chairperson of the Hainesport Democrats, Pat Macken, who provided the following statement:
We approved Citizens’ Media TV’s removal of the presentation from the video, at the behest of Ms. Paula Kosko, who forwarded a message from a State Trooper requesting same. We complied out of respect for the State Police, who provide a great service to our town.
The State Police has now retracted their statement. The administrator [Kosko] is told what to do by the Township Committee. It is the Township Committee’s responsibility to explain this misrepresentation. I don’t think I need to spell it out, especially during an election season.
The full video will be reposted. Under the Open Public Meetings Act, we are permitted to film meetings and will continue to do so. Hainesport residents have a right to know what is going on in their government. We have stood for transparency since 2008 and will continue to do so.
Given the circumstances, we must admit that it now feels like Citizens’ Media TV was used as a pawn in an effort to politically smear our sponsors. We acknowledge this is speculation and we have no evidence to back it up. We will probably never know what truly happened. All we can do is report on the situation as we experienced it ourselves, which was through our interactions with the New Jersey State Police and the Hainesport Township Administrator.
The New Jersey State Police and Hainesport Township were given a preview of the full article and an opportunity to provide a response. We did not receive a response from the NJSP before publication. Township Administrator Paula Kosko expressed appreciation for the opportunity but had no further comment or response.
UPDATE 9/28/2017: The “Sensitive information” section was rewritten and broken into two sections. For clarity only. No information was changed.