Covert camera ruffles feathers in Bellaire

T-L Photo/SHELLEY HANSON/ BELLAIRE MAYOR Vince DeFabrizio, left, and Clerk Tom Sable recite the pledge of allegiance during council's regular meeting. On the wall in the background is a clock containing a hidden camera that has caused controversy.

BELLAIRE — Not much was said about an apparent covert camera installed inside Bellaire Village Council chambers during the group’s regular meeting on Thursday except this: Village Solicitor Joe Vavra said he learned about the camera about a month ago and he still is researching the legalities of it.

The camera is hidden inside a working clock on the back wall of council’s meeting room. From a distance it looks like an ordinary clock.

But upon closer inspection, one can see what appears to be a small black button on case below the number 6. That is the camera’s eye. Once the clock face is opened, one can see the extra inner workings of the camera.

“My opinion right now is that there is nothing illegal to it,” Vavra said of the camera-clock. “I’m going to continue to review this and discuss it with anyone who wants to discuss it and welcome questions regarding the issue.”

Vavra said he was going to gather information about “the nature of the device and what its capabilities are.”

It was not clear during the meeting how many — or if any — members of council were aware of the camera in the past. Except for Vavra’s comments, council members remained mum. However, before the meeting, Mayor Vincent DeFabrizio said he had the camera clock installed for safety reasons in 2015.

DeFabrizio said he did not seek council’s advice on it. The clock cost about $441, much less than the amount required for council’s approval on a purchase.

“I made an executive decision,” DeFabrizio said. “There’s a sign on the door about cameras in council chambers.”

The sign on council’s chamber room door states, “It is possible that audio and video devices may be in use by the media and public during these meetings.”

DeFabrizio added the camera-clock only records video and no audio. He noted it also records the audience and entrance to the room, but not members of council — it shoots over their heads.

There is a separate device council uses to record audio only of its meetings.

After the meeting, Village Administrator Scott Porter said the camera-clock was installed before other regular security cameras were placed in the building. It runs on a battery and is not connected to a computer. He, too, said the camera was installed as a safety measure.

Porter added he looked at the video only once since it was installed, and he forgot that it was even there. He noted it turns on with a motion detector. The video is stored on an SD card.

“At the time we had no cameras. … That was the cheapest effect and we wanted security in council chambers, so I bought a camera and put it up. Did we announce it? No. To me it was no big deal,ã Porter said. “There’s been some issues inside chambers, some items misplaced.”

Porter said he did not know who noticed it and brought it to other officials’ attention.

“There was no mal-intent,” he said. “It was only put up there in case something happened.”

In other matters, Councilman Jerry Fisher said for the past 15 years, the county housing authority had been billed only the minimum cost for their water usage, and that their buildings’ meters had not been read for all those years. The mistake was discovered recently, resulting in a $200,000 bill owed by the authority.

However, it was noted it was not the authority’s fault, but the city’s for not reading the meters. Until a decision is made, council gave Porter the authority to take the $200,000 bill off the active books, so as not to hinder future billings. It was also noted the city would have to figure out and subtract the amount that was paid over the years from the total.

Councilman James Piatt abstained on the related vote because he is a member of the authority’s board of trustees.

Meanwhile, Porter said the village needs to get serious and create a plan to overhaul its infrastructure as it is spending more than $200,000 a year making repairs on the village’s 90-year-old water and sewer lines. He said an engineering firm was hired last year to work on a plan, but it apparently has not been finished.

Instead of spending money making multiple repairs on an old line, the city needs to replace large sections with new pipe, he said. This and other financial matters are expected to be discussed during a council work session slated for 6 p.m. Aug. 29.

West 23rd Street resident Eugene Burney addressed council and asked for a solution to a broken waterline that continues to run water above his property. It was noted the village must get a camera inside the line, which may actually be a broken sewage line, before they can start digging to find the break.

Burney suggested he could install a French-style drain to divert the water away from his foundation, but added he wanted a discount on his water bill for doing the work. Porter noted the city could do the work as a temporary measure until the line could be repaired. Burney agreed the idea sounded good, and Porter said he could contact him soon with a plan.

“I’m not here to give anyone a hard time, I just want it to get done,” Burney said.

Council also opened bids for outside garbage collection service, but no decisions were made regarding them. All three bids were above what residents currently pay the city for service, which is $12.74 per month.

It was noted seven of the city’s work vehicles are in dire need of repairs including a snow plow, dump trucks and more. The estimate for repairs to all the vehicles came in at $18,000. However, the mechanic who gave the estimate is willing to cut his labor rate in half if all the work is done by him.

Council is expected to consider the deal, but it was noted that both the water and sanitation department funds only have about $11,000 in each account.