Woman's videos of meetings shake up Blawnox Council

Mary Ann Thomas
| Monday, Sept. 6, 2010

A Blawnox woman is winning fans as she turns up the heat on Blawnox officials through videos posted on YouTube.

In a video titled "Obama and Ron Paul Told Me I Can Record Public Meetings of Local Government ...," resident Melina Brajovic argues with council President Sam McNaughton. The debate was sparked by council's requirement that people wanting to videotape meetings must sign in beforehand.

McNaughton blurts out: "You weren't even born in this country. You can't even speak English."

Brajovic, 45, a native of Serbia, responds: "You're saying I'm not as American as you are• I am as or better." And McNaughton replies: "I don't think so."

The exchange between the two is available on computer screens everywhere -- and people are watching.

McNaughton said he doesn't mind people videotaping meetings, but he worries that editing can produce an inaccurate portrayal of what happened.

More than 200 people watched Brajovic 's video last week after she posted it. Another video showing Blawnox council members disagreeing with residents -- titled "Constitution Versus Tyranny, Give Me Liberty or Give me Death, Patrick Henry 1776" -- racked up more than 11,500 views since its posting in early June.

"Because of the social nature of the websites, you can have a community congregate around a posting or a common purpose, whether to hold a local government accountable or rally around a cause," said Kelly McBride, senior faculty member for ethics at the Poynter Institute, a journalism organization in St. Petersburg, Fla.

Brajovic produces videos of council meetings for her Blawnox site on YouTube, and edited videos for a national YouTube site on which she advocates for constitutional and economic issues.

"I want council to be accountable for taking their oath of office," she said.

Brajovic surmises that the video snippets are hot because of general interest in constitutional and free speech matters.

Intentionally or not, Blawnox Council gives her fodder for videos: The American Civil Liberties Union stepped in twice during the past year because of the council's restriction on videotaping and recording public meetings.

On June 14, a borough police officer removed Brajovic from a meeting because she signed in as "Thomas Jefferson" on the log sheet for people intending to record the meeting. Brajovic said she used the signature to protest the restriction, which she wants council to repeal.

People who aren't trained journalists are recording meetings and posting videos and documents online because "they can and because they care," McBride said.

McNaughton questions the accuracy and responsibility of the new social media, especially when people edit segments out of context.

"I don't have a problem, other than the fact they have the right to edit as they want, which makes it not an accurate reflection of what actually happened," he said. Regarding the YouTube video of his argument with Brajovic, McNaughton said: "It's an illegal taping."

He declined further comment because of possible litigation.

The borough revised its restrictions after the ACLU intervened, following complaints that the borough required people to notify officials 24 hours in advance of recording meetings. Brajovic and some other residents still don't like having to sign in and to sit in a designated corner of the meeting room.

The videotapes might prove helpful for evaluating complaints about violations of the state's open-meetings law.

"More importantly, it opens up local government," said Sara Rose, the ACLU attorney who intervened on Brajovic's behalf. "It only helps the transparency of government and people's involvement in their government to access videos of meetings online."

Additional Information:

On the Web

To see a video of the Blawnox Council meeting, go to: youtube.com and search for 'Blawnox.'

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