HONESDALE, PA — A controversial media ordinance proposal is still up in the air, for now. Before the March 15 council meeting even began, facing widespread criticism from members of the public, …
HONESDALE, PA — A controversial media ordinance proposal is still up in the air, for now. Before the March 15 council meeting even began, facing widespread criticism from members of the public, the Honesdale Borough Council had already chosen to postpone voting on the proposed piece of local legislation that would regulate the creation of films and photography in the borough. Instead, the council created a committee to research the issue further and likely draft a new version. That didn’t satisfy several residents, however, who remained upset that such an ordinance was even proposed in the first place.
The situation began last year, when a film production company arrived in Honesdale to shoot a commercial. According to council president Mike Augello, the seven-member council had no prior knowledge that the shoot was taking place, and the film crew “without warning” blocked off portions of Main Street and parking spaces in front of local businesses, drawing complaints from at least one business owner.
In response, the council directed the borough’s solicitor Richard Henry to come up with a policy to prevent such a situation from arising again. He drafted the proposed ordinance based on existing “sample policies out there” and presented it to the councilors who advertised it for public comment ahead of Monday evening’s scheduled vote.
Response from residents was substantial and in staunch opposition. The borough received several dozen written comments, the majority of which were not read aloud during Monday’s meeting. And the often brief public comment portion of the meeting extended well over an hour.
The number one complaint was that the proposed ordinance was overly broad, making residents concerned that they would be required to fill out an application and obtain a permit to—for example—film something on Main Street with their cell phone, get wedding pictures taken in Central Park, or engage other types of non-disruptive media production.
To many residents’ interpretations, the following passage from the proposal seems to place film production companies and average residents under the same umbrella:
“The permit required under this ordinance shall be a requirement for all movies, television or video series, pilots, feature films and documentaries, commercials, music videos, photo shoots, infomercials and public service announcements and or any similar media type events, whether the final product is intended for commercial use or not.”
Augello said that the proposed policy was never meant to be applicable to regular members of the public; he expressed frustration that so many had interpreted it that way.
“There’s one part that really bothers me, and that’s the fact that the biggest complaint seems to be on the word photoshoot. In most people’s definition—quite sure there are other definitions out there—a photoshoot would be something that was definitely professional, definitely something very staged and something very obvious,” he said. “This media policy was never, ever meant to stop people from photographing friends, family or anything else they want to photograph.”
Several members of the public argued that, even if it wasn’t the borough’s intent, the fact that so many interpreted the ordinance to include personal use means the policy should be clarified to draw a clearer distinction.
Others had concerns and complaints about how such an ordinance could hamper local creators’ businesses and divert large film and television companies, which could otherwise provide the borough with free publicity.
Lisa Trifonov, a local professional photographer, wanted to know how a media ordinance would affect her business, which involves professional photoshoots but are not large enough to cause any disruptions. Augello said that the newly formed committee will look at defining those types of issues more clearly.
Jill McConnell, another local business owner, asked why this issue required a media ordinance at all.
“When you go back to the catalyst of why this has been brought forth to begin with a year ago, it sounds more like a traffic and parking issue than who’s taking photos or who’s using their video cameras to shoot a documentary or commercial or whatever,” she said.
Resident and vice chair of the borough’s parks and recreation commission Lisa Glover offered some comparative analysis between a media ordinance in Lamar County, GA and the borough’s proposal. She said that Lamar County, where many films and TV shows are filmed, threw out an ordinance nearly identical to Honesdale’s for being “draconian” and opted for a shorter, less stringent policy.
“Eighty-five percent of the text in Honesdale’s proposed media ordinance matches the Lamar County draft that was rejected for being too strict, the 15 percent that’s original to Honesdale is even more strict,” Glover said. “[Even if] this only applies to big media, given the typo-ridden, legal jungle gym that this document is, you could easily find ways to fine them for anything: Who wants to take that risk when the next town over is just as cute?”
The committee will include councilors James Jennings (who opposed the advertising of the original ordinance in the first place), Jared Newbon and James Brennan. Members of the public may also be included to serve in some capacity on the committee, which will look further into the matter and provide an update prior to the council's April 19 meeting.