Beep’s office bars press from boro hall meetings

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Queens Borough Hall has banned TimesLedger reporters on two occasions from covering meetings on the city Department of Education’s reorganization plan and allowing truck traffic on the Grand Central Parkway.

Dan Andrews, spokesman for Queens Borough President Helen Marshall, told two TimesLedger reporters in separate instances that they could not report on the meetings in question because coverage would stifle free-flowing discussions with city officials.

After consulting staff attorneys, Andrews said he was able to restrict press coverage on the new city school plan because the meeting was convened by the borough president’s task force, which is not a decision-making body. This meant the meeting was not subject to open government laws defining the type of sessions to which the press must be admitted.

The education meeting was held April 29 and a TimesLedger reporter was told beforehand he would have to step outside the room while city Schools Chancellor Joel Klein talked with parents about the reorganization of local school districts.

The other meeting took place in early January at which Marshall and city officials met to discuss whether to allow trucks to travel on part of the Grand Central Parkway in Astoria. The public was not invited to the session.

“We want to encourage a free exchange of ideas,” Andrews said hours before the April education meeting of Marshall’s Advisory Council on Education. He said press coverage would inhibit a frank discussion about education issues between Klein and the parents.

Andrews also said he did not want it to appear that the borough president’s office was attempting to encourage publicity or gain from a meeting with Klein.

The borough president’s office was able to keep reporters out of the meeting because the task force is a purely advisory body and does not vote or rule on specific items. New York state’s Open Meetings Law, which outlines which public meetings reporters can attend, says advisory bodies can exclude the press if it is part of their policy.

Andrews offered the TimesLedger reporter the option of speaking with parents after the meeting with Klein was finished, but the newspaper decided not to cover the event because of the restriction on access.

Dave Tracy, assistant director for the Committee on Open Government in Albany, said the Meetings Law applies to public bodies that make decisions either through voting or recommendations on behalf of the public.

“To apply a body has to be a necessary step in the governmental decision-making process,” he said. “But if a group is purely advisory in nature and not a creature of statute and has no final decision-making authority, it would not be subject to the law.”

The other TimesLedger reporter was barred from a meeting with Marshall in early January at her office at which city officials agreed on a proposal to allow trucks access to a portion of the Grand Central Parkway.

The reporter learned of the meeting when people were notified about it earlier that day at a public forum. Andrews informed the reporter he could not attend the meeting because officials at the Borough Hall meeting had not been told a member of the press would be present.

Andrews also said it would be unfair to other newspapers that had not been given notice about the meeting.

Jay Rosen, chairman of the Journalism Department at New York University, said advisory boards and committees fall under a “gray area” when it comes to allowing press coverage. He said such governmental bodies have the right to determine when they want to include and exclude the press.

“But the fact that the meeting would change if there were journalists there does not necessarily mean that would be a bad thing,” he said. “It is more a matter of policy than law.”

Michelle Rea, executive director of the New York Press Association in Albany, said the decision not to allow reporters into the governmental meetings was a disservice to the public. NYPA, an independent trade association, is comprised of weekly newspapers from throughout New York state.

“The press was the eyes and the ears of the people, who for whatever reason, could not attend the meeting,” she said. “Just because they (reporters) are not allowed in does not mean that is the right thing to do.”

Rea said that rather than stifling debate the press is a means to enhance a public discussion and should be encouraged to attend meetings. She said she believes no group should consider itself beyond the media’s reach.

Reach reporter Alex Davidson by e-mail at TimesLedger@aol.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 156.

Posted 7:06 pm, October 10, 2011
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