Altercation before board meeting

Audience members Sandy Smith and John Kraft verbally spar after a physical altercation over Kraft's video camera prior to the Sept. 9 Piatt County board meeting. Stepping in to help stem the altercation is Piatt County Transportation Engineer Eric Seibring (to the right of Kraft) and county board member Randy Shumard (at left).

In 10 years of covering public meetings for the Edgar County Watchdogs, John Kraft has seen a lot of things, once even being asked by someone to step outside and fight.

But he had never had someone go after his video equipment before – that is until just prior to Wednesday's 9 a.m. Piatt County board meeting.

“This is new,” said Kraft after audience member Sandy Smith asked not to be filmed, then walked over and headed towards his video camera.

Smith said she only went to block the lens, but Kraft said she grabbed it.

“I've never had someone attack my camera before,” he said.

The action resulted in a physical altercation between the two as they struggled with the camera. It was broken up by others present for the session, including county transportation engineer Eric Seibring and county board member Randy Shumard.

Smith had stood up five minutes before the start of the meeting and asked not to be filmed/streamed during the session, citing a passage of the Illinois Open Meetings Act.

“I choose not to be filmed. It's my right not to be filmed. According to the OMA act, turn your camera away, please. Turn your camera away please, at my request. You're violating my rights,” said Smith. “I do not want to be broadcast on Facebook, on the open forum, I don't want to be filmed on Facebook. Turn your camera away.”

Kraft responded by saying, “you're wrong. Sit down.”

Smith continued to ask him not to point his camera at her, then walked over and put her hand on or near the lens. Kraft said she grabbed it, and that he responded by grabbing her hand to get it off of the equipment.

Smith contends she only “blocked the camera without touching. I only wanted to block the lens. Mr. Kraft grabbed my hand and in doing so squeezed my hand against the hood, causing it to come off. Then while still gripping my hand, he began to assault me.”

But Robert Bogue, who attnded the meeting with Kraft, said the assault came from Smith.

“She needs to be arrested, because she attacked him,” said Allen.

Kraft called the Piatt County Sheriff's Department to report the incident. A deputy arrived shortly after and took statements outside of the courtroom where the board meeting had just begun.

The Illinois Open Meetings Act does allow any person to record public meetings “by tape, film or other means. The authority holding the meeting shall prescribe reasonable rules to govern the right to make such recordings.”

Smith pointed to the next section of the OMA, which states that “if a witness at any meeting required by this Act which is conducted by a commission, administrative agency or other tribunal, refuses to testify on the grounds that he may not be compelled to testify if any portion of his testimony is to be broadcast or televised or if motion pictures are to be taken of him while he is testifying, the authority holding the meeting shall prohibit such recording during the testimony of the witness.”

Kraft countered that county board meetings do not fit that exemption on filming, since no one is sworn in before they speak.

Both Kraft and Smith were allowed back into the county board session. During the public comment section of the meeting, Smith again asked the Watchdogs camera to be turned away from her. When that was not done, she walked out, saying, “then I guess you're all in this.”

Kraft said he would send video of the incident to the Piatt County Sheriff's Office, “and they'll make the call” on whether any arrests would be made.

“She needs to know she can't do that. And I told the sheriff's deputy if she just apologized, I'll be on my way and I'll be happy. But she wouldn't do that,” he added.

Sheriff David Hunt said it was too early to determine if there would be arrests.

“Sgt. Olsen is preparing a report but we don't know until we have all the information,” he said. “We will look at the video and written statements.”