Cameras added partly over tension at Vermilion meetings
DANVILLE — Beginning next week, Vermilion County Board meetings will be videotaped.
County employees have installed four video cameras on the second floor of the Vermilion County Courthouse Annex where the county board meets.
The $3,000 project is being done for multiple reasons, according to county officials, but partly in response to tensions between the board and some people seeking changes in the county's wind-farm ordinance. County board members have been confronted about leaving the meeting room during public comments about the wind farms.
Vermilion County Board Chairman Gary Weinard said a couple county board members have expressed their concerns to him about incidents at the meetings.
"We have gone from a very civil meeting to some situations that are questionable as a result of opinions that have been voiced by various people in the audience," he said.
The Edgar County Watchdogs, a group of private citizens questioning local government, have confronted board members about leaving the meetings. Member Kirk Allen said in an email to The News-Gazette that "we are proud that the county chairman recognized the need for aggressive financial transparency and the public broadcast of meetings. We will continue to help local citizens hold this administration accountable for their tax-and-spend decisions."
Weinard said the money for the equipment is coming from non-departmental county funds because this doesn't fall under any specific department. He said the cameras will record the entire meeting, both audio and video, and the digital recording will be posted within a few days on the county's website at http://www.vercounty.org, where anyone with Internet access will be able watch the entire meeting. He said it will be a good addition to the board's meeting room, which hosts meetings of other groups that can now use this equipment.
"I think it would be an advantage in our society to have the meetings taped, so if there is something suspicious or out of the ordinary, there will be a video record of it," said Weinard, who also noted that the recordings will help the county be more transparent.
Some county residents have been asking the board to make changes in wind ordinances for more than two years — specifically, requiring that future turbines be built further away from houses and other residential structures. In 2011, the board increased setbacks between turbines and primary structures from 1,000 feet to 1,200 feet. But some residents have continued to ask for bigger setbacks although there are no proposed changes before the board and a recent proposal to increase setbacks failed to gain support.
Several residents who live in the California Ridge wind farm in western Vermilion County have been attending board meetings each month and speaking during public comment about noise and other issues with the turbines, pleading with the board to change its wind-farm ordinance.
In May, county officials moved any public comments about non-agenda items — which were almost entirely about wind farms — to a separate public-comment period at the end of the board's meeting, and since then, a few of the board's 27 members have left the room, or even the building, during those comments, upsetting those talking about the turbines.
One of those residents, Ted Hartke of Hope, has continued to attend meetings, telling board members that he and his family can't sleep at night because of turbine noise. He said the county's cameras are a great idea.
"To have those (meetings) recorded is always smart. Then you can see the county board members leaving and walking out on us, and see the county board members reading newspapers and ignoring citizens," he said. "And I still wonder how the heck cameras in the board meetings are going to help me sleep in my house at night."
During public comments at the end of the September county board meeting, a member of the Edgar County Watchdogs approached Bob Fox, R-District 6, and John Dreher, D-District 7, to ask them why they were leaving.
Fox said Thursday that he doesn't have any problem with the commenters. Regarding whether he will leave during comments at future meetings, he said he would stay if there's something new that he hasn't already heard.
"I've heard the windmill people for three years, and I haven't changed my mind a bit," he said. "I'd be more than happy to listen to someone who has something new to say."
In addition to the cameras, county officials are making another change for Tuesday night's meeting — moving all public comments back to the beginning of the meeting.
Allen said that is a good move, allowing the citizens to address their elected officials before they make decisions on agenda items.
"Such a move I believe can only enhance transparency," he wrote in an email to The News-Gazette.
Tuesday's agenda includes an update from an attorney from Invenergy, the company that developed the California Ridge wind farm. Weinard said the Invenergy official will be updating the board on a sound study that's being conducted within the wind farm.
Weinard said the board will require members of the public to limit comments to 5 minutes, and there will be a 30-minute time limit for the entire public-comment period.
Weinard said attendance at a meeting is strictly the prerogative of each board member. He said some come in late and some leave early.
"It's been that way all 18 years I've been on the board, but it seems to be a big issue now," he said.