City attorney's proposal would put some restrictions on media

The Augusta Commission's Legal Administration committee didn't meet today because it lacked a quorum, meaning an attempt by General Counsel Chiquita Johnson to get news reporters out of public meeting rooms will have to wait until a later date.

If enacted, some of the changes she's proposing would be illegal, according to Georgia Press Association and Augusta Chronicle attorney David Hudson. Contrary to the state's open meetings law, the city's attorney is attempting to single out journalists for restrictions at public meetings.

A resolution drafted by the Law Department, attached to Monday's agenda, says reporters' equipment takes up too much space in the small room attached to commission chambers used for committee meetings, creating "actual and potential dangers" for commissioners and the public and potentially blocking access for persons with disabilities. The resolution also says cell phones, pagers and other electronic devices are causing too many "unwanted disruptions."

Ms. Johnson is proposing to hold all meetings in the commission chambers and convert the smaller room into a "media room," where a live broadcast of meetings would be shown. In the meeting room itself, one or more areas could be set up for cameras and other equipment, which reporters could use on a "first come basis."

The resolution would also require that all media interviews be conducted in the media room, banning reporters from talking to elected officials in commission chambers or in the hallway, which Ms. Johnson contends impedes traffic, disrupts government business and poses safety risks.

Mayor Pro Tem Alvin Mason, the only committee member present, said he will support no such resolution.

Mr. Hudson said the media room proposal would be acceptable as long as it's optional for reporters.

As for restricting interviews, he said, that would be illegal unless the commission wants to ban all conversation in chambers and in the hallway.

As for restricting where cameras can be situated, that too would be illegal if reporters are being given less space in the room than other members of the public.

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