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County says reporters causing 'traffic jams,' restricts access during meetings [Update]

October 14, 2009 |  2:53 pm

Countypress

L.A. County officials have been complaining for years about the ever-decreasing number of reporters who cover them.

The county press room, once bustling with a dozen reporters or more, now looks like a ghost town, home to three reporters on a good day.

Nonetheless, the Board of Supervisors has decided that the few journalists still around are causing problematic "traffic jams" during board meetings, so supervisors have decreed that reporters can no longer interview key personnel in the back rooms and corridors where the officials work during board meetings.

For more than a decade, the areas immediately behind the county supervisors’ meeting room have been available for credentialed reporters to interview department heads and key aides, with very limited exceptions.

But in recent weeks, the supervisors’ executive office asked public safety officers to usher reporters away and issued a memorandum limiting reporters to a room and hallway that are usually empty. 

“As a reminder, members of the media are not permitted in the Department Head areas and all interviews are to be conducted in the press room or the hallway located on the east side of the executive office behind the board room,” wrote Sachi Hamai, the supervisors’ executive officer.

No similar memorandum was issued to target the lobbyists, union representatives and other advocates who sometimes walk the back rooms.

Although Hamai and supervisors’ aides cast the prohibition for reporters as a “reminder” of “prior policy,” she was unable to provide documentation that the policy had been issued before.

Tony Bell, spokesman for Supervisor Mike Antonovich, said the policy was needed to prevent “traffic jams.” David Sommers, spokesman for Supervisor Don Knabe, said the policy was “reasonable.”

Joel Bellman, spokesman for Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, said: “I don’t have a problem with it.”

The restrictions come at a time when the county is significantly increasing its own public outreach efforts, in part because they say the news media doesn’t provide enough coverage.

[Updated at 5:01 p.m.: Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas has expanded his public affairs staff to include a second press aide and a multimedia specialist.  The supervisor's office said today that Ridley-Thomas sends his own messages on Twitter.]

Yaroslavsky is investing tens of thousands of dollars to expand his website. The overhaul is overseen by an aide with a salary of $130,000 and is helped by two contract writers earning $36,000 each. Also assisting is an outside Web design consultant.

The board is also considering expanding the county's TV operation.

Some board meeting regulars questioned whether the reporters caused traffic jams.

“This prohibition against the reporters really upsets me,” said Geneviève M. Clavreul, a Pasadena resident who sits in the first row during board meetings and has complained about the access lobbyists have to back areas. “We hardly have any reporters left anyway. I wonder what they are afraid the reporters will find out?”

-- Garrett Therolf

Photo: A panel listing newspapers, TV and radio stations where the county press corps are housed inside the Kenneth Hahn County Hall of Administration in downtown Los Angeles on Jan. 16, 2009. Most members of the press corps listed are no longer working out of the offices. Credit: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times.

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