Slowik: Homer Township officials spar with citizens over video recording of meetings

Folks who want the Homer Township Board to record and post videos of its monthly meetings will have to wait a while longer for that to happen.

If people are able to watch video of their elected officials in action, they might be surprised at what they see.

On Monday night, for instance, the board voted to direct township Supervisor Pam Meyers to research the cost of recording meetings. The unanimous vote was made after an hour of combative exchanges with citizens. People talked over one another, voices were raised and fingers were pointed.

“We want it. I think the majority of people here want it,” resident John Flemming said during public comment. “All we want is transparency … I’d rather not see it tabled for some cost estimate.”

Flemming echoed the calls of citizens who voted 47-0 during the annual town meeting last month that the board post videos of its meetings. But Trustee John Kruczek said the board must first vote to authorize an expenditure of public funds.

“There’s a lot of due diligence,” Kruczek told Flemming. “There are a lot of things you have to do to be able to videotape — server space (for example). All of that stuff that’s got to be saved.”

Kruczek pointed out that citizens are welcome to use mobile phones or other devices to record videos of meetings for personal use. They could publish them on social media platforms at no cost. Township officials, on the other hand, must obey laws if they spend public funds to capture a video record of proceedings, he said.

“When you pay somebody to videotape, there are legalities you have to follow,” Kruczek said. “No one said we’re against doing this.”

Township officials said they must research whether posting videos on social media channels complies with the Open Meetings Act. If not, they must investigate the cost of hosting videos on the township website and whether they need to store copies in the event someone requested a video through the Freedom of Information Act.

They also said last month’s vote by citizen electors at the town meeting was advisory, not binding.

“The electors have certain authority,” Meyers said. “I only can follow whoever’s authority for spending and for giving direction to the township, whether it be electors or the town board … The board has to authorize the expenditure.”

Township attorney Jerry Sramek backed up Meyers’ position.

“The regulation of the township meeting, particularly in regard to video taping, is, in my opinion, advisory, not mandatory,” Sramek said. “If the citizenry could dictate how we run our meeting I could foresee a lot of difficulty.”

The township board must weigh two sides of the issue, Sramek said. On one side are calls for greater transparency and convenience for residents who are unable to attend meetings in person, he said. On the other side are considerations of cost and procedures for complying with regulations.

Will County Board member Steve Balich, R-Homer Glen, said two people formerly recorded videos of township meetings. One man died, and the other posted commentary along with the videos that officials considered inappropriate.

“He was falsely editing them,” Kruczek said.

“He owned the videos so he got to do what he wanted,” Balich said, during a tense exchange with Kruczek. “He continued doing it, even though nobody liked what he wrote sometimes. That was his prerogative.”

Meyers said the township has not previously spent any public funds to capture or preserve videos of meetings. In addition to editorial commentary, past videos of meetings featured inappropriate graphics, she said.

“He was exploding atom bombs in the middle of our board meetings,” Meyers said, prompting laughter from the small room filled with about 30 people.

“It wasn’t very funny,” Meyers said. “We did not find it funny.”

“It’s funny now,” Highway Commissioner Mike DeVivo said, adding that it wasn’t funny at the time.

Spending an hour at a Homer Township Board meeting exposes someone to big personalities and people who often raise their voices to make a point.

“These are the most dysfunctional board meetings ever,” resident Tony Drabik said.

One might find the clashes entertaining, except the subject matter was gravely serious at times.

Resident Tim O’Meara wanted to know why the township wasn’t doing more to enforce a law banning big trucks from driving on Gougar Road. Village of Homer Glen officials are considering a request to build a gas station at 159th Street and Gougar Road, O’Meara said.

The station would sell diesel and allow trucks more access to Gougar, he said. He showed DeVivo a site plan for the proposed gas station and asked what DeVivo was doing to let Homer Glen officials know that township residents are concerned about the proposal.

DeVivo said he has seen tanker trucks carrying fuel speed along hilly Gougar Road, where school buses stop to pick up and drop off children.

“You’re going to have a flaming busload of kids,” O’Meara said.

Trucks illegally use several rural roads in the area, DeVivo said.

“The real problem is that most of the traffic that comes down is not local traffic,” DeVivo said. “I don’t want them there either. There’s nothing else I can do.”

Another resident asked for the township’s help in trying to get Will County authorities to enforce restrictions on open burning. Sheriff’s police, fire protection district authorities, county health department and land use department officials were giving him the runaround about enforcement, he said.

Homer Township feels like it is at a crossroads. The area has large rural sites, with horses grazing in pastures along country roads. The township board met in a town hall with well-worn wooden floors and modest paneling that gave the room the feel of a bygone era. Meyers noted the building is not equipped with WiFi technology.

Meyers said she has started researching how other local governments record videos of their meetings. She has talked to officials in Lockport and Homer Glen and information technology professionals, she said.

“I’ve checked with other townships. There are no other townships in Will County that I’m aware of that videotape,” Meyers said.

The township’s current website lacks adequate server capacity to post videos, she said.

“Videos take a huge amount of storage,” Meyers said. “It requires a certain amount of server space to put them on your website. The way we’re set up now we wouldn’t be able to do it.”