UPDATED: Niagara Region staff seize journalists’ devices

A portion of a Dec 8 post by blogger Preston Haskell. VOICE GRAPHIC

Mayor Dave Augustyn “insisted” police be called to Regional headquarters; staff’s heavy-handed action draws national attention, widespread condemnation

BY VOICE STAFF

At a meeting of Niagara Regional Council last Thursday evening, Council elected to go into closed session to discuss a matter related to an “identifiable individual and receive legal advice as permitted by the Municipal Act,” according to a Region news release issued early Friday afternoon.

During the closed session, two electronic devices were located on the news media table.  Both devices were operating and one appeared to be recording. Making unauthorized recordings of closed sessions is not permitted.

“In order to protect the confidentiality and integrity of the closed session where an identifiable individual and legal advice was being discussed, the meeting was halted, the devices were photographed and the Niagara Regional Police Service was called,” says the release.

Multiple Councillors, speaking both on the record and not for attribution, have told the Voice that Mayor Dave Augustyn openly urged that the police be called, and was the only councillor to do so. At Augustyn’s prompting, staff made the call.

Despite repeated requests for clarification over the weekend as comment from other councillors came in, Augustyn would neither confirm nor deny this version of events, asserting only that he asked Chair Alan Caslin “whether the police should be called.”

“Your mayor was the only one that insisted the police be called,” said Niagara Falls Councillor Bart Maves.

“All councillors remained seated throughout, except Sandy [Annunziata], who got up to find the hidden recorder and the opened and running laptop. Staff took over from there and no councillor ventured outside the chamber that I saw, so no councillor gave any other instruction nor knew what happened to the equipment nor the reporters.”

Annunizata confirmed this account, saying, “There was no mention of police involvement until Councillor Augustyn made the suggestion.”

On-site security and staff took possession of the two electronic devices from the area with the intention of turning them over to the police for investigation.

After receiving assurances from the St. Catharines Standard’s legal counsel that their journalist, Bill Sawchuk, was not recording the closed session, the one device, his laptop computer, was returned.

“Niagara Region apologizes for this inconvenience caused to Mr. Sawchuk,” says the release.

Sawchuk has not responded to a request for comment, apart from confirming that he routinely leaves his equipment on the media table when short, closed-door sessions are called.

“The Region takes this matter very seriously and will be reviewing its policy and protocols in order to prevent further incidents,” says the release. “As part of this review, the Region will be inviting local media to participate in this process.”

Niagara Region said late last week that it had provided the second device to the Niagara Regional Police Service for investigation. The second device belonged to blogger Preston Haskell. Haskell has not responded to requests for comment.

On his blog, Haskell posted an account of returning from the washroom to find that Council had gone into closed session while he was away, and while his personal belongings, including the recorder, were left in Council chambers.

“It turned out that security had my hat, scarf, coat, camera and even the recorder pouch but no recorder,” wrote Haskell. “Dangling the recorder pouch in my face security asked if the recorder for the pouch was mine. I answered in the affirmative. He said it was too bad because it was confiscated and I wouldn’t be getting it back.”

Voice reporter Samuel Piccolo, who had covered the meeting until it went into closed session, left the premises before the incident occurred. However, Piccolo recalls that those at the media table were told that they could leave their equipment in place while the in camera portion of the meeting was underway.

“I don’t remember anything in particular that was left on the media table,” said Piccolo. “I don’t recall Mr Haskell being present at the table when Bill and I were told by staff that we could leave our things there. Since I was facing away from where he was sitting, I didn’t see what he had done with his things when he left the room, and didn’t pay any attention to whatever was there when I left.”

In a separate news release, the Niagara Regional Police Service confirmed responding to a call from Regional Headquarters.

“Our officers were called to Niagara Regional Headquarters on Thursday December 7, 2017 at 8:13 in regards to an unwanted male who was allegedly recording a confidential portion of council,” reads the release. “Due to call volume, we responded at 8:37.”

Police say that Haskell left the premises prior to police arrival. However, while the officers were on scene, Sawchuk was also asked to leave the premise by Region staff.

“Our officers had no interaction with him, nor did they seize his laptop, notes or any other property.”

In the days following the incident it received national attention, with reports carried by the National Post, Toronto Star, and the CBC.

The organization Canadian Journalists for Free Expression released a statement condemning the Region’s actions, saying, “The actions of Niagara Regional Council members and police are an outrageous assault on media rights, and evidence of a disturbing disregard for the role of the press in a democracy.”

The group also expressed its support for Welland MPP Cindy Forster’s call for the Minister of Municipal Affairs to investigate the incident.

 

Updated to include comment by Voice reporter Samuel Piccolo on the appearance of the media table upon his departure from Regional headquarters.

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