Reporters often hear complaints about taxicabs.
But we don’t often hear much about the regulatory Taxicab Commission.
That changed last week. Two journalists were arrested and escorted in handcuffs out of the commission’s public meeting.
And what was the offense? The reporters were trying to record audio and video of the meeting.
Interim Commission Chair Dena Reed said the reporters’ efforts were disruptive. She later said people tend to act out more if a camera is present. (That’s true, but it’s not a reason to ban a camera. Hasn’t she ever watched ranting and raving members of Congress on cable?)
D.C. Attorney General Irvin Nathan told us he’ll complete a review of the incident this week but that the city government will emphasize D.C.’s open-meetings law.
“I am meeting with Ms. Dena Reed this week and will reiterate that both audio and video recordings and photography will be permitted at future open commission meetings, so long as it is not disruptive or intrusive,” Irvin said. “No charges will be brought by this office against the reporters arrested last week.”
Nathan said misdemeanor charges of disruption were being dropped against Jim Epstein, of reason.com, and Pete Tucker, who writes at thefightback.org. (We happened to mention Tucker’s work on cabs in a column last week, unaware of the arrest taking place.)
This incident could have escaped general attention, as the media was slow to pick up on the arrests, but Epstein had the sense to videotape Tucker’s arrest and post it online.
Johnny Barnes, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of the Nation’s Capital, also is investigating the case. DCist.com reported that a Washington Post reporter who remained in the room took video of several cab drivers who walked out in protest of the arrests. DCist also noted that the city now has a much tougher open-meetings law than in the past. It went into effect earlier this year.
Ward 6 D.C. Council member Tommy Wells, who has oversight of the Taxicab Commission, wrote a stern letter to the attorney general, demanding that the incident be fully investigated.
“I am troubled by actions taken by the District of Columbia Taxicab Commission,” Wells wrote. “I look forward to receiving your timely response.” Wells also has said that over the summer he’ll explore abolishing the dysfunctional commission and placing it under the city’s Department of Transportation.
Mayor Vincent Gray was moved to denounce the arrests and promise that his agencies would respect open-meetings requirements.
And at a media training session for his cabinet last Friday, the mayor reiterated that he wants an open and transparent administration. It turns out that right after the mayor made his comments, WTOP reporter Mark Segraves went to the Taxicab Commission offices and was tossed out. A staff member turned out the lights and locked the doors.
We hope the attorney general’s conversation with the taxi chair will have more lasting results.
We’ve had our own trouble with security guards and others telling us we can’t shoot this or that. It all stems from a misplaced sense of “security” in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Most of all, we’ll never forget the private guard at a sewage pumping station in southeast Washington who, as our camera crew videotaped (it’s a beautiful building), came out into the street and told us we couldn’t take pictures. Your Notebook responded, “This is America,” and said we could tape there. The guard responded, “This is not America, this is the sewer department.”
• That media training.
We want to point out that your Notebook was the guest speaker at the previously referenced session with the mayor’s cabinet. We were told it would be off the record, but we announced that anything we said would be on the record. Good thing, since there was a cable television camera recording the whole thing. Maybe we could have acted like the Taxicab Commission and had the cable cameraman arrested. But we digress.
We’re not sure we’ll be invited back for another cabinet session.
We first complained about the location of the meeting.
It was at the International Monetary Fund-World Bank offices at 18th and H streets NW. Most of the bank’s employees don’t pay city income taxes, and we’re checking on what, if any, property taxes the organization pays. In addition, all of the revenue-producing parking meters around the buildings have been removed for “security” reasons.
It’s not a place a mayor should take his local cabinet. The 50-foot conference table -- yes, 50-foot -- seemed more suitable to negotiating Middle East peace.
Next, we told the assembled cabinet members that we had only one bit of good news for them -- that so far, none of them had shown up on the Internet in his or her underwear.
Our bottom-line advice -- and this goes for any individual, group or organization -- is that reporters are not your friends, but they don’t have to be your enemies. The worst thing you can do is to ignore a reporter’s inquiry. That’s like leaving only one team on the field.
• A final word.
Something simple this week: Happy Fourth of July!