Debate continues over board meeting video

By Alex Bridges

WOODSTOCK – Tempers flared again among some Shenandoah County leaders Thursday over a proposal to videotape the Board of Supervisors meetings.

At the end of the board’s regular work session, District 4 Supervisor Cindy Bailey asked that Vice Chairman Conrad Helsley disclose the identity of donors he says have offered to cover some of the costs for equipment needed to videotape the meetings.

Helsley advised the board at its meeting May 27 that he received commitments from private donors who would pay the $2,200 needed for the cameras and the annual cost of $1,200 to add video to the audio already available on the county’s website. County Administrator Mary T. Price has explained in previous meetings that recorded video would appear in a window that opens when a site visitor goes to listen to the meeting audio.

Helsley continued to hold his ground on the issue, saying video would let viewers see how board members react to situations during the meetings. At the end of the short but loud debate, Helsley said he still would not disclose the identity of the donor.

While an outspoken advocate of government transparency, Bailey says she sees the addition of video to the audio already provided to the public as an unnecessary expense at this time.

Bailey said Helsley should disclose the identity of his donor or donors in the interest of transparency.

“What transparency is is talking about public business in a public business that people can hear,” Bailey said. “We just put all this money in an audio on our website … We spent a lot of money upgrading the audio. That’s the first thing.

“The second thing is I’d like to know what you promised those donors for giving you that money,” Bailey said.

“You’re calling me a crook?” Helsley snapped.

“Like when a [request for proposals] or an employee’s getting hired I like to look at that list of donors to see if there’s any matches there,” Bailey said.

“We’re talking an amount of $2,000,” Bailey said.

“If you want to eliminate the issue of public trust you will give those names no questions asked,” Bailey said. “You need to divulge those names. I don’t know how we as a government can take on anonymous donors’ money for something … which is an ongoing expense that we’re going to have to pay for next year when the donations run out.”

“No, you don’t have to pay it,” Helsley responded. “If you decide or the public decides they don’t want it, you can stop that at any time.”

Bailey said the county would need to spend money to hire someone to take care of the added video portion of the meeting recordings.

Helsley compared the proposal to a recent situation in which the county animal shelter received about $15,000 in donations and its manager expressed to the board a desire to spend the money on one-time renovations to its facility. Bailey said she had no problem with the shelter’s circumstances and added that the Parks and Recreation Department should have the ability to accept and use donations.

“Did you ask were they anonymous donors?” Helsley asked Bailey.

“No, because there’s no personal agenda there,” Bailey said. “There’s a personal agenda up here, that you’re getting donations.”

“That’s ridiculous,” Helsley said. “There’s no personal agenda. We’re just trying to open it up to the people. You want to make it a personal agenda. … If you don’t want the public to be able to see this then vote against it.”

The board is expected to revisit the proposal and possibly take action at its meeting Tuesday. Information on how the county would accept donations for the proposal, whether the names of the donors must be made public, or if the board would need to hold a public hearing on the matter, was not immediately available Thursday.

Shenandoah County would not be the first local government to make not only its audio but also video available for online viewing, should supervisors approve the proposal. Warren County and Front Royal make the video recordings of their regular meetings of the Board of Supervisors and Town Council available on their municipal websites. Frederick County also posts Board of Supervisors meetings on its website as well through a separate channel on YouTube.

Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or abridges@nvdaily.com