Editorial: No way can CAC meetings be ‘off the record’

March 6, 2009
By

CAC should not bar reporters who intend to report

The Citizen Advisory Committee (CAC) to the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) for the redevelopment of Jackson Square, like all CACs, has major responsibilities. The group of 20 people learns about Jackson Square development plans as they progress with the goal of advising the BRA about them. Appointed by Mayor Thomas M. Menino, they are charged with representing local organizations and the public in general during what may be months, even years, of a multi-phased, multi-use, multi-million-dollar redevelopment of about 11 acres of promi-nent land, much of it publicly owned. The CAC has to hold a lot of meetings to do its work.

The media also has major responsibilities; they include reporting to the public about development plans and issues, subjects being discussed and any advice given by the CAC about those subjects. Media responsibilities also include—as they always do with all news—reporting fairly, completely and accurately on what transpires. Typically, groups and their members that media cover help journalists find out information needed for reporting and talk to them about their views.

The Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office declared in 2007 that CAC meetings in the City of Boston are subject to the Open Meeting Law, meaning the public must be allowed to attend, and announcements of meetings be made public beforehand. Because of this, the media can go and report back to the invited public in a timely way what transpires at those meetings so readers can find out what the issues are, what is being discussed and what, if anything, gets decided.

In a written statement issued last week, BRA spokesperson Jessica Shumaker said, “We encourage everyone to attend the various CAC…meetings, including members of the media. To ensure that all citizens can attend these meetings, our staff posts CAC… meetings on the BRA’s website calendar and notifies community members via email…we believe in an open and transparent process where everyone can observe the work that these volunteer groups are assisting us with.”

Although this all sounds simple, straightforward and obvious—a recipe for cooperation for the benefit of all—a complication has arisen with the Jackson Square process. CAC members have said several times they want their meetings to be “off the record,” most recently welcoming a Jamaica Plain Gazette reporter to attend on Feb. 25, but asking him to leave when he would not agree not to write about the specific contents of the meeting.

The CAC made a mistake in both ideological and practical terms.

“Off the record” is a request one individual news source may occasionally make of an individual journalist, as in, “I want what I am going to tell you to be off the record.” Saying that is the equivalent of telling an ordinary person, “I want to tell you a secret.” The next step is that the journalist or other person agrees to cooperate or not.

The notion that a publicly appointed advisory committee can dictate that the specific content of a public meeting about public issues where many people are present be kept secret is absurd from common sense, journalistic and public policy perspectives. The only interpretation possible is that the people seeking privacy really mean they don’t want information from the meeting written down and widely published and distributed in a timely way for the public to know.

Journalists do not attend news events like CAC meetings for personal information purposes, just as CAC members, developers and government officials do not participate for those reasons either. Each party is there because of a particular public role and responsibility. A reporter attends to take notes and then write about what happened and what people there say, often researching additional information and talking to people outside the meeting as well, so the public, which is invited, can read about and find out what’s new with the project.

Everyone involved in the Jackson Square CAC needs to face up to their complete responsibilities and work in cooperation. Members, other participants and the community as a whole need to think about why openness about public matters is considered so fundamentally important in our society that there are laws requiring it—and why the US Constitution says freedom of the press cannot be “abridged.” Then they need to welcome and encourage media coverage of CAC meetings and the news they contain as the important public service it is.

Sandra Storey