FLINT TWP. — Some townships residents want to be seen and heard.
Tempers flared at the April 20 township board meeting over allegations that videotaping of board meetings intentionally does not show contentious speakers during public comment.
The fuss began with a complaint from Terry Locke, owner of Dynamite Video Productions and videographer of board meetings.
Locke said he received “a disturbing phone call” at his home from David Huffman, one of several residents who frequently comment at board meeting. Locke said that Huffman angrily demanded answers about the way videotaping was done at the April 6 meeting.
Huffman challenged that Locke had been instructed not to show speakers during public comment, particularly those who routinely criticize board business.
Locke said he repeatedly told Huffman that he made no content changes to the video which he always films from start to finish. Meeting vid- eos are posted on the township website and shown on Comcast FACT Channel 17 at 9:30 p.m. on Thursdays.
Huffman said it was his constitutional right to be shown in the video and Locke said he told him it was not. Not satisfied, Huffman called Locke’s home two more times and left messages, Locke said.
Locke said he is “suspicious of someone who would call and bully someone like that over the phone.” He said if it happens again, he will file harassment charges with the police.
Huffman was present at the meeting and spoke in his own defense.
“I am not the big, bad wolf out of control,’’ he said. He said his concern as a citizen was seeing public commenters not being shown on the videotapes, which is funded by taxpayer money.
“This is not about me being on TV,’’ he said, accusing the board of not being transparent.
“I have a sickening and strong feeling that this administration wants to eliminate public comment,’’ he said. Huffman ran unsuccessfully for township trustee in 2012 and is the son of the late James Huffman, who served at a township trustee from 1968 to 1976. Gerald Roberts, another resident who is a frequent speaker, alluded to the alleged videotaping methods by describing his age, weight and hair color for the benefit of anyone watching the video who could hear but not see him.
Roberts said he has lived in the township since 1971, served six years in the National Guard and paid and estimated $60,000 in property taxes.
“I feel I have the right to talk,” he said, adding that Huffman was upset because public commenters previously have been shown on camera while speaking. He said it seemed to him Township Supervisor Karyn Miller was trying to stifle pubic commenters who make negative comments. He added that at the April 6 meeting, the camera showed Genesee County Road Commission John Daly during his presentation to the board about state Proposal 1.
Roberts said it is wrong to pick and choose which speakers to show on camera.
Miller responded that prior to 2009, township meetings were never recorded. She said the videotapes are not edited and are placed on the township website for public viewing.
Citing the Open Meetings Act of 1967, she also said that everyone who wishes to address the board during public comment has the right to do so. As for transparency, Miller said since she took office much more board business is readily viewable on the township website including the budget and audits. Any information not found on the website is available by request.
“I don’t know anyone who is more transparent than this board,’’ she said.
Clerk Kim Courts said that videotaping of board meetings is not mandatory but offered as a convenience for residents. But she said, after listening to the arguments, she was starting to question if videotaping is the right thing to do. Trustee Frank Kasle, who is an attorney, said he thinks videotaping is effective and the board should continue to do it.
He further commented on freedom of speech. Huffman should not have called Locke and yelled at him, Kasle said but noted the practice during the past six years of videotaping speakers during public comment. It is not a Constitutional right, he said.
Kasle said he does not always like what commenters have to say, particularly when it is about him, but he maintains they have a right to say it.
Kasle concluded with “a history lesson” on freedom of speech. In the 1964 case of New York Times Co. vs. Sullivan, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that public officials must prove actual malice in claims of defamation or libel.
L.B. Sullivan was police commissioner in Montgomery, Alabama who sued the newspaper for libel because of an ad it ran stating that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., leader of civil rights movement, had been wrongfully arrested in an attempt to derail King’s efforts to integrate public facilities and secure voting rights for blacks.
The Supreme Court ruling was deemed a victory for newspapers by freeing them to report about the civil rights movement without the threat of legal retaliation.
Basically the ruling upheld the right to criticize public officials. Residents also have that right and the township board has a “duty to listen to it whether we like it or not,” Kasle said.