NEWARK, NJ - Sowing more seeds of confusion in its efforts to communicate with the public during a crisis, Mayor Ras Baraka’s administration turned away TV cameras and reporters Tuesday from a lead water-related meeting at City Hall it had blasted out in a press release the day before.
The meeting had been pegged as an opportunity for Newark residents to sign up as volunteers to inform others about how to replace affected lead service lines shortly after the city secured a $120 million loan from Essex County. The loan would expedite an existing program by the city that it says now comes at no cost to residents.
“We look forward to going door-to-door with our tremendous volunteers to help residents participate in our Lead Service Line Replacement Program in the coming days,” read the press release, sent by Senior Press Information Officer David Lippman. “We invite residents to a meeting tomorrow, Tuesday, August 27 at 6:00 p.m. in the rotunda of Newark City Hall to join us in getting to participate in the Lead Service Line Replacement Program.”
But when reporters arrived at a side entrance Tuesday evening to cover the meeting and talk to residents, the mayor’s staff told news cameramen to leave after they set up inside the rotunda where the event took place. Other reporters were told only Newark residents were allowed inside City Hall.
Staff who work in Baraka’s communication office did not elaborate about why detailed information on a gathering inside City Hall was distributed by press release if the mayor did not intend for news media outlets to be allowed inside.
City Spokeswoman Crystal Rosa, who was standing outside City Hall to block media from entering, explained the meeting was only open to Newark residents signing up to volunteer to assist in lead clean-up.
Bruce Rosen, a media law attorney and Rutgers Law professor, said the First Amendment obviously applies within the City of Newark, guaranteeing the freedom of the press.
"I don't see what basis they have for not allowing the media in. If it's open to the public, it's open to everyone. They can not be selective about it," Rosen said.
"This tells me that Mayor Baraka doesn't feel that he can withstand coverage from the media about whatever he's saying. But that's not how it works," Rosen said. "Access is access. And if it's public access, it's public access. City Hall is a very public forum. You can't tell people not to come."