By Tom Steward | Watchdog Minnesota Bureau
MINNETONKA, Minn. — The League of Women Voters called police Thursday to stop a public access channel from filming a candidates’ forum at Minnetonka City Hall.
Just minutes into the program, attention for the second time this week turned from candidates to a controversial recording ban, which, critics contend, conflicts with the democratic values espoused by the good government group.
Video trackers for three political groups, standing a few feet from the “No unauthorized video recording is allowed at this event” warning sign, filmed anyway.
Peggy Kvam,, voter services chair for the LWV Minnetonka, Eden Prairie, Hopkins chapter, abruptly halted the proceedings and called police. “We have a person here who refuses to quit recording. I’ve asked the police to escort him out,” Kvam said to audience applause. “We will not continue until we have people following our League of Women Voters policies.”
The self-described “nonpartisan political organization” fosters “informed and active participation in government” through strictly controlled candidate forums featuring a moderator, filtered audience questions and a ban on cameras, except for credentialed media.
LMV Minnesota forums feature candidates for public office in public events held in public places, usually involving public officials. The ban includes cell phone cameras in the audience.
“How do you keep it as an event where the candidates want to participate? Because if it gets to be where you get all these cameras and this partisan stuff, then they’re not going to come,” said Kvam. “And then there won’t be any voter education and all you’ve got is the spin stuff.”
Trackers for the Minnesota Action Network and Democratic Party complied with the LWV prohibition, but Minnesota Jobs Coalition photographer Ethan Hellier kept rolling.
“I was standing here, and they told me I shouldn’t film, and I started filming anyways,” said Hellier. He said he negotiated a truce with LWV’s Bloomington chapter that enabled him to film earlier this week. “All of a sudden, the forum stopped because they called Minnetonka police.”
In a similar standoff involving Hellier and LWV last week, Edina City Manager Scott Neal affirmed people’s right to film in Edina City Hall in response to a Watchdog Minnesota Bureau inquiry. Hellier filmed the forum, even as an unidentified man covered the camera lens for several minutes.
READY, AIM, RECORD: Despite the League of Women Voters’ ban on filming, video tracker Ethan Hellier continued to assert his right to film a public event with candidates for public office.
”It’s not my policy, but it’s the league’s state-level policy that I have to enforce,” said Kvam, who added LWV was not charged for using the City Council chambers and cameras.
“I just asked them about a week ago and they’re still holding to that policy. All I can do is enforce the policy, and the reason is we don’t want to see a gotcha moment for these candidates.”
Three police officers remained in the atrium outside chambers, in view of the audience. They did not intervene, according to attendees. “The police station is right here in the building and they came up here,” said Hellier, who stopped filming briefly to speak with Kvam of the LWV in the lobby.
“I assume if the police had any issues they would come and speak to me, and they didn’t. I think they just came to respond to the call and then they were off.”
Hellier continued filming Rep. Yvonne Selcer, DFL, and her Republican opponent, Kirk Stensrud in House District 48A, as well Republican Rep. Jenifer Loon and her opponent, Joan Howe-Pullis, DFL, in House District 48B.
When visibly annoyed LWV spotters in the crowd caught on, Kvam covered the lens with her hand for the remaining 10 minutes or so. “It does seem to me that if they’re permitted to have a public meeting here at City Hall, then anyone who wants to attend and tape should be able to,” said David Asp, a Minnetonka attorney and Minnesota Jobs Coalition board member in attendance.
Afterward, a LWV representative who refused to identify herself said she got five complaints about the cameras from members of the audience. Others echoed those sentiments.
“I found it annoying to even have pictures taken, just as annoying, as if someone had their cell phone on and dealing with that. I find it all just disrespectful,” said Leanne Ashley, a LWV local volunteer.
Yet a representative of one of nine groups listed as partners in the forum expressed concern over the league’s camera ban. “Since it’s being simulcast and sent out on the public airwaves simultaneously with the delivery, I don’t understand why it would be a problem with someone taping it,” said Marcy Harris, a member of the National Council of Jewish Women. “I don’t see a problem with it, and I’m a very big supporter of the First Amendment.”
NO CAMERAS ALLOWED: When League of Women Voters spotters in the crowd realized a video tracker was still filming, local LWV official Peggy Kvam took matters into her own hands and covered the lens.
One of the candidates participating in the forum expressed support for ending the League of Women Voters’ ban on filming.
“The expectation is that this is going to be televised anyway. So anybody who’s either here or watches it on television or watches the replay can tape the forum anyway,” Loon said. “So if there’s going to be filming and media going on, I really don’t have any concerns with others doing it.”
Groups listed by LWV as partners in candidate forums include AARP, Children’s Defense Fund, Gray Panthers, Intergenerational Working Group, Jewish Community Action, Jewish Family Services of St. Paul, Mature Voices, National Council of Jewish Women and Vital Aging Network.