First Amendment advocates say a Minneapolis board broke state law this week when its members stopped journalists from covering a public meeting on a $200 million North Side infrastructure project.
It wasn't the first time. And Minneapolis officials knew the same committee members had stopped journalists from reporting on previous meetings.
In December, journalists from Fox 9 complained to Minneapolis communications staff that board members told them they couldn't record video for a story on the development of the Upper Harbor Terminal site, a 48-acre plot of city-owned riverfront land in north Minneapolis. The redevelopment, funded by a combination of private and public money, is what Mayor Jacob Frey considers "one of the most important projects Minneapolis has undertaken in decades," and residents have passionately disagreed about the planning.
"It's a public meeting," Fox 9 reporter Tom Lyden wrote to Minneapolis' communications staff on Dec. 12, including director Greta Bergstrom. "We cover those. With camera(s)."
Bergstrom agreed the media had the right to attend and record the meeting. "We are working internally to make City staff aware of this who may have been under the wrong impression," she said.
On Wednesday, six weeks later, members of the board halted a meeting to tell journalists they could not record or take pictures, saying they wouldn't discuss certain business items with reporters present. Some of the board members said they did not trust the media to accurately represent them.
One member, longtime community activist Bill English, said in an interview Friday that members were suspicious of the "white media" and its past portrayal of black communities.
Several city officials were present at the meeting, including Shauen Pearce, an aide to Frey, staff members for the department of Community Planning & Economic Development and City Council Member Phillipe Cunningham.
After the meeting, Cunningham said the media "railroaded" the committee. In a follow-up statement Friday, he apologized for the "misunderstanding."
"I also take responsibility for not speaking up during this tense exchange," he said. "Trying to find a balance between following community leadership and leading as an elected official can be challenging, and I made the wrong decision to not speak up in this case."
Members halt meeting
Last May, the Minneapolis City Council established the 17-person community advisory board for the Upper Harbor Terminal project. Its members include north and northeast Minneapolis residents and business owners.
One of them is Channon Lemon, a vice president with the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce and a member of the Star Tribune's board of directors. Lemon was among those who told the media not to record, according to several members who were present. Lemon declined requests for an interview Friday.
Present at the meeting were journalists from Minnesota Public Radio, MinnPost and the Star Tribune, though the Star Tribune was not in the room during the time of the confrontation. After being told they couldn't record, MinnPost reporter Jessica Lee and MPR photographer Evan Frost invoked their First Amendment rights to document government meetings.
"They didn't change their stance," said Lee. "They said, 'Please no photos. No photos. No photos.' "
Frost left after the exchange. Lee stayed but did not take more photos or record, she said.
English said the committee members did not understand that they were violating open meeting laws when they confronted the reporters.
"There's a long-standing suspicion between the African-American community in particular and the white press," he said. "It was a pushback on that because they didn't understand the ground rules."
'Open meeting law is clear'
In response to backlash, city officials say they will educate members of the board of the open meeting law.
"The open meeting law is clear: Press should be allowed in," said Frey. "Period."
Erik Hansen, director of Economic Policy and Development for Minneapolis, sent an e-mail to committee members this week reiterating that the law guarantees the right to attend and record government meetings. "You are an officially designated member of a City advisory board and must comply with these public meeting laws," he wrote. "Removing yourself from the committee is the only option if you do not wish to comply with these laws.
Bergstrom and City Clerk Casey Carl said they will attend future meetings.
Members of the Minnesota Society of Professional Journalists, the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information and Twin Cities journalists and editors have joined in condemning what MinnPost editor Andy Putz called "a directive that constitutes about as blatant a violation of Minnesota's open meeting law as you can get."
"I'm glad to learn the city is going to remind the members of the committee that reporters are, in fact, allowed to do their jobs as outlined in Minnesota law," said Putz. "What's especially troubling is that several city officials — including a City Council member and a member of the mayor's staff — were also in attendance and said nothing despite the committee's actions being an obvious violation of the law."
Matt Ehling, who advocates for transparency as part of Minnesota Coalition on Government Information, called the incident part of a trend of attacks on the media.
"You simply can't allow — whether it's President Trump or a City Council person — to exclude members of the press from covering the activities of the government," Ehling said.