As aides to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. struck a more conciliatory tone toward the media, Maryland's two most powerful legislative leaders signaled yesterday that they intend to block plans to remove the press from offices in the State House basement during renovations there.
This week, the Maryland Department of General Services sent eviction notices to media outlets with office space in the Capitol, informing them that they would be required to leave by mid-July. They would share much diminished space upon their return, expected in about three years.
By Thursday, the deadline had been pushed back to the end of July. But media executives and state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch expressed additional concerns. And gubernatorial aides backpedaled yesterday, announcing that reporters would be given temporary space either in Shaw House, a small, historic office building across the street from the State House, or the state Treasury building, which is farther away.
Several journalists reserved judgment because of the lack of details. And Busch and Miller indicated yesterday that they opposed even a temporary eviction of the press from the State House.
"My purpose here is to make sure that the press remains ... as much a part of the institution of government as the executive or the legislature," Busch said yesterday. If the governor's staffers were to decide who goes into specific offices, he said, they could play favorites.
"We are unified in that," said Vicki Fretwell, a spokeswoman for Miller. "There are a variety of ways this can happen without having the press out of the building for a long period of time."
In a meeting with reporters, Ehrlich press secretary Gregory Massoni said the renovation of the State House was long overdue. Moving the media out was meant to create space for displaced state workers as the building underwent major repairs.
"This has to happen or the walls will fall in on us," he said. "We will make sure there will be space provided" for the media.
Some journalists contend that their ability to cover policy and politics will be hampered if they have to work from remote offices. Television stations can broadcast using microwave and satellite signals, while several larger newspapers have other offices within a walk or quick drive of the State House. But smaller newspapers might not assign beats on state government at all without the guarantee of space, said Tom Marquardt, executive editor of the Annapolis Capital and an official with the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association.
The three largest news organizations to cover the State House -- The Sun, The Washington Post and the Associated Press -- would likely lose their individual offices and instead share smaller quarters with other media outlets, Massoni said. But he said no designs had been devised yet.
"It does sound like the administration has recognized that they have to provide a `for-sure' place for them to return," said Morris "Chip" Weinman, president of the Maryland/D.C./Delaware Broadcasters Association. "The main concern of the media is continued access."
Busch and Miller say that state Secretary of General Services Boyd K. Rutherford did not consult them in his plans for the renovations. Both legislative leaders belong to the four-member State House Trust.
By law, the trust has the responsibility to "disapprove or approve and supervise any proposed repair, improvement or other change to the State House or to any other building within State Circle, including any change to the furnishings or fixtures of those buildings."
Yesterday, Rutherford told reporters he interpreted the law differently from Busch and Miller, saying the trust's approval was unnecessary because he was seeking temporary shifts, not permanent changes. But he said he plans to meet with Busch and Miller next week to address any differences.