Council OKs gazebo cameras, new policy

FRONT ROYAL – A divided Town Council voted Monday to put back the video cameras at the gazebo after pressure from residents and business owners.

Council debated the matter for about an hour, voting on various amendments to an original motion that ultimately approved the re-installation of cameras at the gazebo and set policies governing the use and installation of such devices in other public areas of Front Royal.

Council voted 4-2 to approve the re-installation and the policy. Councilwoman Bébhinn Egger and Councilman Bret W. Hrbek voted against the motion. Vice Mayor Hollis L. Tharpe and Councilmen John P. Connolly, Jacob L. Meza and Eugene R. Tewalt voted in favor of the motion.

The town took down the devices from the gazebo at Chester and Main streets at council’s request in December. The town installed the cameras in late 2013 to no fanfare without input from council. Council members who pushed to remove the cameras said more than once that the devices had not helped in any recent criminal investigations downtown.

Earlier this year residents as well as downtown property and business owners came before council on several occasions and urged members to put back the cameras, citing the use of devices as deterrents for crime and tools in police investigations.

During Monday’s council debate over the gazebo cameras and policy, members went back and forth on amendments to the original motion, most of which did not receive enough support. In some cases, Mayor Timothy W. Darr had to cast tie-breaking votes that showed his support for the installation and policies. Efforts by Egger and Hrbek to split the two ideas – cameras at the gazebo and a resolution setting the policies – or to delay action on the policy approval also failed.

Hrbek suggested council should address the matter as it would a change to the town code, which would require a public hearing. Egger said the resolution and approval to reinstall cameras are not the same. She later argued that council might be trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist, noting that only a small percentage of arrests occur around the gazebo.

Egger, Hrbek and Meza voted on the amendment to delay action on the original motion to reinstall the cameras and to approve the resolution. Vice Mayor Hollis L. Tharpe and Councilmen Eugene R. Tewalt and Connolly voted against the amendment. Darr broke the tie by voting against the amendment.

Burke told council that, with the approval of the resolution, staff members would recommend holding a public hearing to codify the regulations. Burke said after the meeting that the town doesn’t have a working digital video recorder and likely would not before the public hearing.

Egger asked Town Attorney Douglas Napier if video footage recorded by the town subject to requests under the Freedom of Information Act. Napier said he would need to do more research to provide a definitive answer. Burke said the police department is looking into software that would block out faces of people in the footage not part of an investigation.

Egger then sought to amend the original motion to reassess the effectiveness of the cameras in a year. Hrbek suggested the motion impose a sunset clause for the policy and cameras. That motion failed 4-3 with Darr breaking the tie. Another motion by Egger sought to give council, not the town manager, the authority to install cameras, passed by a vote of 4-2. Egger also sought to remove language from the resolution that calls for the town to install signs advising people of the existence of the cameras. The motion failed 5-1. Another motion Egger pushed to change the language of the resolution to limit access to the footage also failed.

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