NEWARK, NJ - Mayor Ras Baraka’s administration said on Wednesday it would reverse future decisions to block the press from covering meetings that involve residents impacted by Newark’s lead water crisis one day after it prevented reporters from attending a gathering on the matter inside City Hall.
The meeting on Tuesday 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.
Reporters did not learn that the mayor’s office was asking only Newark residents to attend until they showed up at a time and place that had been detailed by a press release sent to news media that cover the mayor.
Members of television crews told TAPinto Newark, which first reported Tuesday’s incident, they had initially entered the rotunda where the meeting was to take place and set up their cameras before being told by the mayor’s staff they were not allowed in and were instructed to stay outside.
“With the intention of facilitating a productive meeting and encouraging an open dialogue with volunteers, we chose not to open the discussion to members of the press so that residents will not shy away from helping us in these efforts,” according to a statement sent Wednesday by the city’s director of communications, Frank Baraff.
Baraff was among administration staff standing outside a side door of City Hall that informed reporters they were not allowed to inside Tuesday’s meeting.
The confusion over press access to a meeting that had been blasted out to members of the news media comes as residents expressed frustration and growing distrust with the way the administration has handled the years-long water contamination problem that reached a fever pitch earlier this month.
The Baraka administration now says it would no longer bar the media from covering such meetings, where reporters typically interview Newark residents about their experiences during the crisis.
“We know how critical members of the press are to informing the public and will update you with additional information about our efforts to get lead service lines replaced in the city,” Baraff’s statement read. “At future meetings, there will be media availability.”
Media law attorney Bruce Rosen, however, wasn't quite sure what the future holds regarding media access in Newark.
"This really seems ludicrous. Is this like 'I made a mistake, and I won't do it again?'" said Rosen, a partner at the firm of McCusker, Anselmi, Rosen, and Carvelli, based in Florham Park, New Jersey and an adjunct Rutgers Law professor. "In fact, (the city) doesn't say that the media will be allowed into future meanings, just that there will be 'media availability.' In P.R.-speak, that could mean that someone is going to come out at the meeting, and start talking. You don't know what they're thinking."
The administration has a responsibility under the Constitution and an obligation to the public. "They all took oaths, and they should be following those oaths. They created a violation that was really inexcusable," Rosen said.
There is no excuse for Mayor Baraka to do what he did, Rosen said. "He needs to hone his message, rather than hide his message."