Several reporters claim the Washington, D.C., city council violated its own open meetings law when it ordered police to remove the media from a recent meeting, which was called to discuss in-fighting among council members.
"I asked the officer what we would be arrested for if we didn't leave and he couldn't give me an answer," said NBC News4 reporter Tom Sherwood, who has been covering the Council of the District of Columbia since 1982 for local news organizations. "I told him if it was a felony I would go, but if it was just a misdemeanor, I might stay."
Sherwood and a handful of other local reporters found out that the council was holding a meeting on Sept. 22, two days after a regularly scheduled meeting wherein council members publicly cursed at one another in a debate regarding tax increases for the city's wealthiest residents.
When the reporters showed up at the meeting, they were told the council was going to discuss personnel issues.
WTOP Radio and Channel 7 news reporter Mark Segraves said the media present were prepared to take the council at its word, but then Sherwood, of NBC, saw the agenda in council Chairman Kwame R. Brown's possession.
"Council member decorum and profanity were first on the list. The reporters did not believe that the decorum was a private matter," Sherwood said. Segraves said the reporters protested "so strenuously" because they saw that the agenda "went beyond financial disclosure of district employees."
Brown apparently considered giving reporters a copy of the agenda, but then decided against it and summoned officers to remove the media.
Segraves, who has covered D.C. politics for almost 20 years, said he believes the legislative body violated its own open meetings law.
"By my read of the open meetings law, when they closed the meeting to discuss personnel matters, that's clearly within their purview," he said. "According to members, that's the way it started in the beginning, but then they discussed their inner workings. Once they voted to close the meeting for specific reasons and then they start discussing issues outside of that, they have broken the open meetings law."
The Open Meetings Amendment Act, passed in 2010, reads, "A public body that meets in closed session shall not discuss or consider matters other than those matters listed," which includes discussing the body's staff.
Karen Sibert, Brown's deputy chief of staff, said the council was baffled by the media's refusal to leave. When asked if she believed the council violated the open meetings law, she responded, "absolutely not."
Sibert also said the council has not received any letters of complaint.
Tom Susman, president of D.C. Open Government Coalition, said given the new nature of the open meetings law, and the "dysfunction" of the council, "It doesn't surprise me they're having trouble with it. They've got a procedure to follow and they didn't follow it," he said.
In an editorial titled "More lack of decorum from the D.C. Council," The Washington Post blasted legislators for the "appalling" and "embarrassing spectacle" that took place on Sept. 22.
"If this is how members hope to repair the council’s reputation," according to the editorial, "the city is in even worse trouble than we thought."