Meeting could determine fate of State House press quarters

Ehrlich ordered reporters to vacate for renovations

July 02, 2004|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,SUN STAFF

State government reporters hope that a meeting this morning between House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Boyd K. Rutherford, secretary of the Maryland Department of General Services, will avert their eviction from longtime quarters in the basement of the State House.

If not, they expect to be told by Rutherford at a second meeting this morning that he and his boss, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., want the reporters to clear out by the end of this month.

In a letter sent to news media outlets this week, Rutherford announced that the space, which has been occupied by the press since at least 1961, is needed by gubernatorial staff members during the next phase of State House renovations. Consequently, the news operations would have to find office space elsewhere in Annapolis, farther from the affairs they cover.

Originally, Rutherford gave the news media until July 15 to vacate. But yesterday, in response to media complaints about short notice, he extended the deadline two weeks, to the end of this month.

Despite the extension, news organizations continued yesterday to protest Ehrlich's move to push them out of the State House. The Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association (MDDC), which represents newspapers in Maryland -- including The Sun -- and the Associated Press of Maryland sent letters to Rutherford objecting to the pending eviction.

Ousting the press, MDDC said in its letter, is a "disservice" to citizens and a break from traditional practice.

"For years state government has worked with the press to disseminate important public information in a timely manner and to encourage easy access to public officials," the group wrote. "It would be a shame if this cooperation was denied -- for the first time in anyone's memory -- by making access more difficult."

Busch has sided with the press and in a conference call with Maryland news executives Tuesday called the governor's plan to evict the press "short-sighted."

Yesterday, the speaker toured the State House with Rutherford and Steven L. Kreseski, Ehrlich's chief of staff, trying to identify alternatives, which, he said, could involve keeping the press in the State House but in smaller quarters.

If he chooses, Busch could argue that Ehrlich, who has a rancorous relationship with the press, exceeded his authority in ordering the expulsion of the news organizations. By law, all renovations to the State House are overseen by the State House Trust, a four-member board composed of Busch, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and two Ehrlich designees. Busch has said the trust was not consulted before Ehrlich decided to evict the press.

James Doyle, a lobbyist for the press association, said yesterday that if Busch and Miller oppose the eviction, "you'd have a standoff."

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