BARTOW — Polk County Commissioners signaled support Friday for installing cameras in a conference room where biweekly meetings take place.
The Commission has drawn criticism for holding its agenda reviews and work session briefings in the Board Conference Room at the County Administration Building in Bartow. That room is not easily accessible to the public, and the meetings are not broadcast, as regular County Commission meetings are.
Open-government advocates have questioned whether holding the meetings in such a location might violate Florida’s Sunshine Laws, which require that government meetings be open to the public.
'Legally questionable': Polk County Commission holds public meetings behind a locked door
During Friday’s agenda review, Commissioner George Lindsey said he had requested that County Manager Bill Beasley include money in the next fiscal year’s budget for installing cameras and microphones in the room. Lindsey said he preferred that approach to a possible alternative of holding agenda reviews in the County Commission Boardroom, which is equipped with cameras and audio equipment.
“I like the informality of this table and looking across the table and having candid conversations,” Lindsey said. “Downstairs is a little more formal and less casual.”
Communications Director Mianne Nelson described preliminary plans to the commissioners. She said the county could install robotic cameras on three walls in the room and microphones in the ceiling above the long table at which the commissioners sit.
The project would also require the creation of a control center in an adjacent room, Nelson said. She offered an estimate for the total cost at $75,000 to $100,000.
With commissioners offering their approval, Beasley said they wouldn’t need to discuss the matter further and funding for the equipment could be included in next year’s budget. The fiscal year runs from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30.
The conference room, on the fourth floor of the County Administration Building, can only be reached by passing through an outer door that requires an employee pass card.
Nelson previously told The Ledger that the media and the public need only to use a phone in the lobby to call and receive entry to the suite that holds the conference room. She said residents have not been denied access and that the county had received no complaints about the location of the meetings.
The county staff set up several chairs along one wall for the media and the public at Friday’s meeting. Not all of them were occupied.
The installation of equipment would allow meetings to be broadcast live, Nelson said. Recordings would also be archived on the county’s website for viewing later.
The county records audio of agenda meetings and offers compact discs to the public. The county previously charged $5 for the CDs but began offering them at no charge about a month ago, Lindsey said..
The County Commission holds agenda sessions on the Friday before Tuesday's full meeting, held every other week. While the agenda sessions are intended for reviewing items to be discussed at the next public meeting, commissioners often hear detailed summaries from the county staff in the sessions and then vote to approve or disapprove an agenda item at the commission meeting.
This article originally appeared on The Ledger: Polk County Commission to install cameras in conference room