City says media not allowed to report on public information sessions
St. John’s is holding a series of public information sessions as it develops a plan for parks and open spaces — but wants to keep the media out.
Bowring Park as seen a few hundred feet above St. John’s while flying towards Kilbride.
The city announced Tuesday night it will hold public information sessions later this month and early April for residents to discuss how green spaces and parks contribute to their neighbourhoods.
“It’s one thing for us to talk about ways in which we can do things, but we really want to hear what the people have to say,” Jonathan Galgay, chairman of the city’s public works standing committee, said Wednesday. “They’re the ones who are living in these neighbourhoods and communities, and it’s really important for us to step back and give them that opportunity in a positive light. Oftentimes when we do engagement, it’s about a controversial issue or there’s tension sometimes around it. This is a positive form of dialogue, that people will have an opportunity in a very respectful environment to share their concerns, to talk about how they wish to see their neighbourhoods grow and to deal with the future.”
The city is inviting reporters to come to the sessions — as long as they don’t come to the sessions as reporters.
“Members of the media are welcome to attend any of the scheduled sessions as participants and ward residents,” reads a news release distributed at Tuesday night’s city council meeting. “However, the sessions and comments by participants may not be videotaped and/or recorded for broadcast or reporting.”
City spokeswoman Jennifer Mills said Wednesday the city wants to keep journalists from reporting on the sessions in order to keep them open.
“It’s really just to keep the process open, so people feel comfortable with saying whatever it is that they feel like they want to tell the city,” she said. “We have done sessions like this before on other things. If media would like to come and be outside the room and then interview people after it’s over, that’s fine, no problem whatsoever. But we really want to keep the process open.”
Mills couldn’t say what grounds the city had to declare an ostensibly public information session off-limits to journalists.
“I’m going to have to ask about that,” she said. “I just issued (the news release).”
Later, Mills provided a written response to The Telegram, declining further requests for an interview.
“The ward sessions are intended to provide an open and safe forum for residents to freely express their thoughts related to parks and open spaces in our city. As such we are requesting media respect the intent of these meetings as media presence may influence individuals comfort levels with speaking publically,” wrote Mills. “Members of the public may be intimidated by media reporting their thoughts and ideas. Our primary concern is to hear from residents. Any members of the media who wish to attend and to speak to individuals who are willing to be quoted, photographed or videotaped outside of the safe environment guaranteed by the city may do so, after we are finished.”
Mills did acknowledge, however, that the public information sessions will not be the only way citizens can express their opinions. “There will be a variety of options open to the public to engage in this process and we do not want to limit people's options to participate,” she wrote in an email to the Telegram.
Asked via email again what grounds the city has to prohibit the media from the public sessions, Mills said it’s being done at the request of the consultant, Moncton firm Trace Planning and Design. “These are consultation sessions set up by the consultant to allow residents an open venue to speak and as such the consultant has requested they not be videotaped and/or recorded by media to allow people to feel they are in a safe and secure environment where they can speak freely,” wrote Mills. Asked how residents unable to attend the meeting will be able to find out what happens at the meetings, Mills wrote, “Residents will be able to get updates as the process moves forward in an unbiased factual manner through the city and consultant's websites.
Sessions will be held in each of the city’s five wards. All meetings start at 7 p.m.
Ward 1: April 3, Wedgewood Park Community Centre, 47 Gleneyre St.
Ward 2: March 27, Foran Green Room, City Hall.
Ward 3: April 2, Cowan Heights United Church, 141 Frecker Dr.
Ward 4: April 1, Lions Club Chalet, 139 Bonaventure Ave.
Ward 5: March 31, Kilbride Lions Community Centre, 34 Fahey St.
Mills said the cost of the sessions is $98,163. Included in that cost is the $5,000 fee charged by Randall Arendt, an American consultant specializing in conservation planning who will meet with city councillors and staff.
Arendt said Wednesday he’ll speak about the opportunities to flesh out an open-space network.
“Trails are a big part of that,” he said. “One phase of that would be to see how you can work with existing city-owned land, and then another part of it will be, as the community grows with new developments — typically residential, but it could be non-residential — that there be standards that the city consider adopting that will lay out an open-space network through lands for future development, so as those lands come under design review by a developer, the developer will know in advance the city is looking for some open-space connection.”