At L.A. City Hall, one of the challenges for journalists has always been cornering pols and bureaucrats who don't want to answer questions.
Records requests can go unanswered for days, phone calls unreturned. But when the City Council meets in the ornate, marble council chamber, the city's lawmakers are flushed from their offices into the open. The balance of power shifts, ever so slightly, and the narrow window on the public's business opens a little wider.
That's why the City Hall press corps reacted with howls, blogs, stories and righteous indignation last week when new rules were imposed that made it harder for the media to get at council members during meetings. The rules have not been strictly enforced as bickering continues. The outcome seems of some consequence, as the city struggles with an epic budget shortfall and other problems.
Reporters had for decades been able to ease up to a council member during a meeting for a quick point of clarification or to insist on an answer. A sample from my era covering City Hall in the '90s: Councilman Nate Holden, why is it there's a woman who still receives sick pay months after leaving as your receptionist? (Holden, ever the model of rectitude, couldn't explain away the special treatment.)
This council's new rules, reportedly designed to maintain order and reduce noise during council meetings, prohibit reporters from directly approaching the lawmakers. They force deadline-addled members of the Fourth Estate to go through aides (not always available) to get to the bosses. The rules also require a uniformed sergeant at arms to escort scribes to an adjacent meeting room where interviews would be allowed.
Council President Eric Garcetti and two council presidents pro-tem, Jan Perry and Dennis Zine, had imposed the new restrictions because members had complained there was too much noise and too many distractions during meetings.
After a roar of protest from the media, the lawmakers almost immediately relented. It now seems that reporters will be allowed to directly approach council members at their meetings, as I did Friday (more on that later), though the actual conversations still must be moved to the periphery of the council chamber.
At least that seems to be the rule, though Zine told me he believed anything more than a quick query should still be posed in an adjacent media room. Problem solved?
Maybe. Garcetti and the others have called a meeting for Monday for reporters and council members to hash out the ground rules for good.
The reaction from my comrades at City Hall has been both completely understandable and a little overwrought. As Rick Orlov, who has spent more than two decades at City Hall for the Los Angeles Daily News, said: "I think the last thing the public cares about right now is whiny reporters."
Yet anyone who has wielded a notebook can tell you: Access limited often amounts to access denied. People in Los Angeles want to know right now, not a day or week later, why their leaders didn't know whether the electricity rate hike they approved last month would last only a few months or for the long haul.
Even being forced to take a council member to an adjacent room for an interview could persuade some lawmakers to remain at their seats.
"I don't want rules that mean I have to pull council members away from doing their jobs. I think they should be there when they are voting," said Claudia Peschiutta, a reporter for KNX-AM radio (1070). "But I have deadlines. I need to talk to them now. I can't wait hours for comment."
I asked Peschiutta why the council leaders had imposed these rules now, when the quick sidebars between press and pols have been a City Hall routine for decades.
She mentioned L.A.'s dire cash shortage and the huge stink over DWP rate increases. "They have been getting what might be considered unfavorable coverage. Could the timing be a coincidence? It could be."
The restrictions come a few months after the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors also made it harder for the media to get their job done during meetings. The Supes banned reporters from an area immediately behind the dais, where department heads and others congregate during board meetings.
Some county bureaucrats (don't let me shock you) seem all too happy to shrink off to safer ground if they sense that an ink-stained warrior is about to intrude into their protected lair.
Reporters can be a feisty lot anyway. But in the current environment, with the Internet pressing with its endless deadlines and our industry beset with cost-cutting and layoffs, we have become even less patient with dithering. That makes us even more likely to unify around a core principle such as access.
Back at City Hall some of the press crew remained agitated Friday morning, more than a week after Garcetti & Co. came up with the new rules. KABC radio reporter Michael Linder had posted a picture on his blog of Garcetti, captioned "Muzzling the Media, Day 10."
I didn't have a hard time getting Perry to leave the council floor to talk about the changes.
But when I asked if someone like me would be welcome at Monday's meeting on the new rules, she folded her arms in front of her and responded, "Why are you being so defensive?" Actually, I thought I was being offensive. Must have been off my game.
I asked about the horde of city staffers crammed toward the front of the chamber, a gabby and loud lot. Perry justified their presence one by one.
Former councilman and now city staffer Mike Hernandez explained that reporters shouldn't feel singled out. Even employees have been told to remain on the sidelines, outside of a row of giant marble pillars, when 15 lawmakers are holding forth. As if on cue, he informed one young man with a city badge that he was standing in the neutral zone.
"With everyone carrying on, it's just difficult to hear the speakers and to maintain order," said Zine, a former police officer.
That seemed clear enough, but then Zine started telling me about the "Grey's Anatomy" episode he had seen the night before. It featured some nut ball shooting up the hospital and killing a bunch of doctors.
"When you come in here," he said, referring to the council chambers, "we don't know who you are. You take out a gun and start shooting people."
I thought I had passed through a metal detector getting into City Hall. But Zine assured me that by going through a backdoor I could have avoided security.
Nice to know.
So maybe Fox 11's John Schwada will turn that camera stand into a rocket launcher? Radio man Linder? His mike could double as a pistol.
The Almost Great City Hall Access Dustup seems to be resolving itself. I expect Monday's meeting will be used to make easing of the restrictions official. Don't expect my compadres, a pretty offensive lot, to let this drop.