(In the original version of this story, Eileen Wilkerson was quoted as saying the City Council approved the installation of the camera. She actually had told The Almanac during an interview that she was under the impression the council had approved the device, but a search for supporting documents produced nothing, she said.)
Does the town of Atherton have the right to videotape members of the public doing business in Town Hall, even if they have not been made aware of the camera's presence? The question has been raised by several residents after they became aware of a camera's presence in the town's administration office for the first time this week.
The camera, which has no audio function, is trained on the cash register in the post office area of the administration building's front office, said Assistant City Manager Eileen Wilkerson.
Resident and town watcher Peter Carpenter, the president of the Atherton Civic Interest League, learned of the camera's presence when it was referred to in an exchange between others over the videotaping by resident Jon Buckheit of an Aug. 20 meeting in Town Hall between the city manager and three people seeking public records.
The revelation prompted him to fire off an e-mail to council members, town staff and others, strongly urging that the town "either immediately cease the use of these devices and to destroy all of the accumulated recordings," or to publicly disclose the presence of any camera and the town's policies on who has access to the recorded data and for what purpose, how long and where the recordings are kept, and whether an individual doing business in Town Hall can request the camera not record their actions.
Mr. Carpenter told The Almanac that he was shocked when he learned of the camera's existence. "It's an incredible violation of my rights as a citizen," he said, noting that there are no signs telling people their actions are being videotaped.
"This is not what I think citizens expect of their government," he said.
City Manager Jerry Gruber told The Almanac that the town has "no ulterior motive" in placing the camera over the area where money is kept. The town also has a camera in the police station, which is in the same building as the administration offices, and one outside the building.
The cameras, Mr. Gruber said, were authorized before he came to town.
Mr. Gruber and Ms. Wilkerson agreed that, given the concerns expressed by Mr. Carpenter and others over the cameras, particularly the one in Town Hall, it was time to look into creating policies on the use and retention of data collected by the camera, and on notifying the public of its presence.
"When you work with something for so long, you almost forget it's there," he said. But, he added, the town staff is receptive to residents' concerns and will try to address them.