I was thrown out of a meeting for the first time in my career.
The New Jersey Department of Transportation are building a new causeway and bridge into town and part of the project includes a new entranceway for the city. Ocean City's Welcome Center, already on the causeway, will be redesigned as part of the new causeway. In the meantime, a temporary welcome center will be constructed in town as part of the entranceway. The business administrator told me representatives of the DOT would show the plans for the temporary welcome center to members of the chamber of commerce on Friday and asked if I was going to attend. I took this as an invitation, because I spoke to the executive director of the chamber of commerce and she told me the same thing.
I get to the meeting and after ten minutes the business administrator takes me aside and sheepishly admits that the DOT was "nervous" that I was there and that it was a workshop meeting to discuss the plans before introducing the final design to the public in May.
With that he suggested I leave the meeting.
Thing was, members of the chamber of commerce and a zoning board member who is also running for city council were allowed to stay. So other members of the public could stay but a reporter made the DOT representatives "nervous".
Shouldn't the business administrator know that it was a workshop meeting, closed to the press. The DOT had several renderings of the project the public might be interested in.
Before being ejected from the room, I snagged an agenda from the so-called "Aesthetics Task Force Meeting".
Here's what they talked about: a brief overview of contracts A and B, the aesthetic elements for Ocean City, which includes a revised retaining wall, landscaping, sidewalk and crosswalk treatments, street and parking lighting, bridge pier lighting and a glare/privacy screen. The task force also discussed the temporary visitors center, permanent visitors center and public information center.
Not that the state wants anybody to know about it because the press wasn't allowed to see this.
This is the first time I was thrown out of any meeting before, and with such a flimsy bullshit excuse. The DOT was "nervous" a reporter was in the room? What about the chamber of commerce or the council candidate? Why were they allowed to stay?
I was close to fighting it. I was close to staying put and not leaving and anchoring myself to one of the chairs.
Yet I didn't. I just left the room and didn't want to cause a fuss.
So I told my editor about it and he's going to editorialize about it next week, which is a good thing. The city's administration touts itself as having "transparency in government", yet it's far from transparent. The city does what all governments do: shields the truth from the public.
When I started working as a journalist in 1994, the State of New Jersey worked with the press. I could call any department head or staffer and get an interview. That changed six years ago and now the press has to deal with communications departments and spokespeople who don't return our phone calls until days later. If anyone wants to muzzle press inquiry, it's the state.
I'm not surprised the DOT was uncomfortable with me being in the room. Bureaucrats are a pretty spineless lot. What amazed me was the city's business administrator didn't let the community's newspaper stay.
I guess the state isn't alone in muzzling the First Amendment.