The Erie County Legislature has implemented new rules that attempt to regulate how reporters cover its meetings.
Reversing a long-standing practice, the Legislature has told reporters they will no longer be allowed to interview or otherwise communicate with lawmakers in the portion of the room where legislators sit, even after meetings. Instead, reporters are expected to wait in a ringed spectator area, which will make it easier for some legislators to leave through a side door and avoid reporters altogether.
Other rule changes stipulate where television stations locate cameras, ban live reports involving reporters doing "standups" and prohibit reporters from using cell phones during meetings.
Kevin Kelley, clerk of the Legislature, instituted the rules this week at the behest of lawmakers. The action is not subject to a vote of the Legislature.
Kelley and Legislature Chairman George A. Holt said the new rules were prompted by the increased number of television cameras at meetings and resulting disruptions since the budget crisis last fall.
"The effort is to try and establish a system of being organized in the chambers," Holt said. "What we want to do is establish a system of how to interview."
The media and Legislature have been at odds in recent months over the practice of lawmakers meeting in secret, in apparent violation of the Open Meetings Law. Legislators have met in private on four occasions, in December, February and March, each time to discuss sensitive spending matters.
Holt said the rules are not in retaliation for aggressive and often unflattering coverage of the Legislature in recent months.
"This is nothing personal," he said.
Few, if any, other legislative bodies in the area restrict the movement of reporters in meeting spaces.
"I think some of it is warranted because it has been a circus at times," said Rich Kellman, senior correspondent at WGRZ-TV, Channel 2. "But we should be able to talk to legislators after the session is over in the chambers. We shouldn't have to go track people down afterwards."
Kellman termed the rules "arbitrary, at best. The effect is to inhibit the flow of information for viewers, for taxpayers."
Rich Newberg, senior correspondent at WIVB-TV, Channel 4, said: "This is a public meeting place," he said. "When the meeting is over, we should have direct access to legislators -- instead of having them bolt for the exit so that we can hold them accountable for their actions. That's our job."
He also disagreed with the mandate that cameras remain on stationary tripods instead of being moved around the chambers. It is sometimes impossible for a camera fixed at one location to have a direct view of all the lawmakers, he said.
Newberg acknowledged that his and other broadcast crews may have been disruptive at times during the Legislature's budget votes, but said the hurried nature of the budget process didn't help. If there's a problem, Newberg said, reporters are willing to work with the Legislature to keep disruptions to a minimum without such stringent rules.
"We're professionals," Newberg said. "We know how to be respectful."