By JOHN T. WARD
Former Red Bank Council President Cindy Burnham blasted borough Attorney Greg Cannon after he redirected a video camera she was using to record the governing body’s semimonthly meeting Wednesday night.
Mid-meeting, while others on the dais were speaking about unrelated matters, Cannon walked from his seat beside Mayor Pasquale Menna to the front row of the audience and re-aimed Burnham’s tripod-mounted camera before returning to his seat.
Burnham was seated away from the camera at the time, and the incident went unnoticed by some on the dais and in the audience. Menna said afterward that he hadn’t seen it.
But during the public comment portion of the meeting, Burnham, who lost her council seat in November after one term, called attention to Cannon’s action, which she termed “so bizarre.”
She said Cannon had approached her in the hallway before the meeting and “asked me to turn my camera away because Linda feels intimidated,” she said, referring to Councilwoman Linda Schwabenbauer, a onetime Burnham ally.
During the meeting, Burnham said, she had stepped away from the tripod when Cannon approached it and touched the camera.
Burnham said that in recording, she was doing nothing different than Morford Place resident Suzanne Viscomi, who both Facebook streams the council and other committee sessions live from a front-row seat and posts full-length meeting videos afterward on YouTube.
If Schwabenbauer feels uncomfortable being recorded “that’s your problem,” she said to Schwabenbauer, “but I don’t see why I can’t videotape this.”
Cannon disagreed that Burnham and Viscomi were doing the same thing.
“You have the right to tape the meetings,” he said. “What you don’t have is the right is to come into the council chamber and make people who are seated on this dais feel uncomfortable by zooming in on their face.”
“I didn’t zoom in on anybody,” Burnham shot back.
Unlike Viscomi, Cannon continued, “you are clearly doing it, in my view, for some other purpose that’s not valid.”
“I turned your camera to view the entire dais,” he continued. “I didn’t turn it off. We didn’t take it from you. But you’re not going to be allowed to come in here and point the camera at people and pan in on their face and make them feel uncomfortable in a public setting like this. That’s just the way it’s going to be.”
“Aren’t you just a bully,” Burnham replied.
“It’s my job to protect the validity of this process up here,” he said. “If you don’t like the way it’s done, that’s fine, you have recourse, but that’s the way it’s going to be, and we’re going to set a policy that that’s the way it’s going to be.”
“I’m just appalled,” Burnham shot back.
Locust Avenue resident Ben Forest, a former journalist who was seated beside Burnham’s tripod, told Cannon he thought his action was “very inappropriate, and I was really shocked that you did it.”
A board of education member and regular attendee of council, planning and zoning board meetings, Forest said he had never witnessed such a scenario. A policy that says videographers must be at their cameras when recording “seems reasonable to me,” Forest said, if it is applied to everyone.
“But to go up and touch the device and to point it, that’s kind of bizarre to me, too,” he said.
Afterward, Burnham told redbankgreen she had been recording meetings for her own viewing and had not published any. She insisted that the camera was “always pointed at all” those seated on the dais, capturing the full width. She called the claim that she was singling out Schwabenbauer “bull.”
She declined to share her video with redbankgreen.
Schwabenbauer told redbankgreen that she had not asked Cannon to take any action against Burnham, who she said had been recording her for several months. “I just asked him a question: was it legal?” she said.
“I was objecting to being singled out,” she said, adding that the camera “was clearly pointed in this direction.”
Menna, a lawyer who has served as borough attorney in other towns, told redbankgreen that the courts have ruled that citizens have a right to record public meetings as long as the recording doesn’t interfere with the meeting itself. The issue of the videographer’s intent doesn’t factor into it, he said.
Cannon, a 33-year-old third-term councilman in Aberdeen who was appointed Red Bank’s borough attorney in January, declined to answer questions after the meeting, instead sending redbankgreen this statement via email:
“Ms. Burnham is seeking to confuse the issue and use the First Amendment as a sword rather than a shield. The issue is not whether a citizen has a right to videotape a public meeting – no one is challenging that right. Another citizen, Ms. Viscomi live streams and videotapes every meeting and posts the meetings online as a terrific public service. The issue is that Ms. Burnham has been using her video camera to target, intimidate, harass, and bully one particular councilmember, who also has the right to come to a public meeting and feel safe in conducting the public business.”