Council Debates Public Access 

Council debate centers on actions of C.A. reporter.

Discussion became heated Tuesday, October 17th, when the Memphis City Council discussed a plan in the Personnel, Intergovernmental & Annexation Committee that would limit public and media access to the council members and their documents. The new policy requires anyone requesting information from the council to pay a minimum $10 per-hour research fee and $1.50 per-page for any copies made, to be paid before the party receives the information. The policy also states that requests for information must be in writing and state a “legitimate interest” in the information. Further, “the council chairperson or vice-chairman must approve all requests.” Upon approval, the requesting party must show proper identification and prove that he is a citizen of Tennessee. The policy also states that, “If the request is not in person, the requester may secure the above form and have it notarized.” In the procedure list that is included with the proposed ordinance, step nine allows that council staff, “blocks confidential information out of the records.” Several council members expressed their opposition to the proposed ordinance. “I think this proposed set of rules could be interpreted, and rightfully so, as an impediment to those who are trying to do fair information gathering, trying to do their jobs,” said Council Member Tom Marshall. This proposal comes after City Council Attorney Allan Wade sent a letter to Commercial Appeal reporter Blake Fontenay reprimanding the reporter for opening and reading council members’ mail. Wade’s letter also informed Fontenay that his future access to the council offices would be greatly limited. In a “Viewpoint” article in the Sunday Commercial Appeal, Managing Editor Henry Stokes stated that the newspaper stood behind its reporter, that Fontenay had been set up, and that Wade’s letter and the proposed ordinance were attempts to punish the Commercial Appeal for negative reporting on the council and on Wade in the past. Besides being the attorney for the city council, Wade is representing Cherokee Children and Family Services, a daycare services broker. The Commercial Appeal has written numerous times about the agency and its troubles. The daily has also written extensively about a telephone that council chairwoman Barbara Swearengen Holt had installed in the council restroom. In the meeting, council members quickly became divided over the ordinance with Holt speaking passionately about why such a policy was necessary. “Just because a reporter got angry and wants to teach me a lesson, we shouldn’t go back to the way it was,” said Holt. “The pen, the mighty newspaper, ought not to be able to run our office.” Her comments quickly met with opposition from council members John Vergos, Brent Taylor, and Pat Vander Schaaf, who complained about the principle behind the new policy, as well as the policy itself. “I think this is unnecessary,” said Taylor. “We’ve got $13 million in cost overruns on the convention center, a hotel/motel tax increase, and we’re here talking about how we’re going to give information to reporters.” Vergos further argued that the proposed ordinance, which was copied from the policy adopted by Memphis Light, Gas & Water in 1993, is not applicable to the council. “I don’t know what MLG&W’s standard is, but that board is not elected, and we are,” said Vergos. “The people I have to answer to are the ones in my district. I will tell my staff that if Blake Fontenay doesn’t have $10 for the information, I don’t care. There is a lot that goes on outside of these meetings that reporters should have access to.” Vander Schaaf agreed, saying, “We work for the public and the public has a right to the same materials we are given.” The emboldened Holt did not back down though, and insisted that because of The Commercial Appeal’s actions, the issue had become personal. “This came about because they [The Commercial Appeal] were trying to teach us a lesson,” said Holt. “They wanted to show us that the pen is mightier than the sword.” Holt then referred to the stories written by the daily on the telephone, which cost $800 to install. “It’s an effort to try to make me look bad,” said Holt. “Yes, it is personal because Blake decided he was going to teach me a lesson. They have made it personal. Besides, they already have the open records law.Ó” Council Member TaJuan Stout Mitchell quickly agreed with Holt, saying that some policy should be adopted to control public and media access to the council and to council information. However, Mitchell did not think the entire issue should be pinned on Blake Fontenay. “I don’t want this to be about Blake,” said Mitchell. “I don’t think that’s fair. Today it may be Blake, tomorrow it may be Lake. It should be about what’s good for the business of the city.” The council ended discussion on the proposal by postponing a vote until November 7th. Prior to the end of the meeting, Vander Schaaf turned to Holt and said, “Maybe you ought to consider removing that phone from the bathroom. I, for one, if it rang, I’d be afraid to pick it up.” (You can write Rebekah Gleaves at gleaves@memphisflyer.com)

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