A Minnesota legislator said Saturday that he's concerned about the state issuing public money to a major Minneapolis infrastructure project after reports that members of a public board advising the development have prevented journalists from covering its meetings.
Rep. Dean Urdahl, GOP lead on the House's Capital Investment Committee, released a statement calling on elected officials in Minneapolis to answer for the actions of the Upper Harbor Terminal Advisory Committee, a board created by the City Council to give input on the $200 million North Side project.
"It is deeply troubling that several members of this board — including a Minneapolis City Council member — attempted to block journalists from exercising their First Amendment rights and informing the public about this taxpayer-funded project," Urdahl said. "The city is seeking tens of millions of dollars from the state, and is looking to spend hundreds of millions more locally. With that comes a responsibility to be open and transparent with the public, including the media. This incident, and the assertion that the board 'wouldn't discuss certain business items with reporters present,' raises major concerns as we evaluate bonding projects heading into the next session."
Urdahl's comments came as a chorus of First Amendment groups and media representatives condemned the board for violating open meeting laws. On Wednesday, members of the committee stopped a meeting to tell journalists from several media outlets that they couldn't record or take pictures, saying they wouldn't conduct some business with reporters present. Several city officials were present at the time, including Shauen Pearce, an aide to Mayor Jacob Frey; staff members for the department of Community Planning & Economic Development, and City Council Member Phillipe Cunningham.
A similar incident took place on Dec. 11, when members of the same committee told Fox 9 reporters they could not film for a story on the Upper Harbor project. Afterward, reporter Tom Lyden raised the issue with city communications director Greta Bergstrom. At the time, Bergstrom agreed reporters had the legal right to record, assuring Lyden the city would address the problem internally.
Citing a Star Tribune report on the confrontations with reporters, Urdahl said: "The Legislature will need answers and clarity about this incident, and why this board has repeatedly attempted to block media from reporting on this project."
The Upper Harbor Terminal site is a 48-acre plot of city-owned riverfront land in north Minneapolis. The massive construction project, funded by a combination of private and public money, will transform a part of the city that's historically been underserved by government. But residents have passionately disagreed about the planning.
The 17-member board is made up of north and northeast Minneapolis residents and business owners appointed by the City Council. One is Channon Lemon, who is on the Star Tribune's board of directors.
In an interview Friday, Bill English, another member, said some on the committee are skeptical of "white media" and past portrayals of African-American communities. English said board members didn't know they were violating open meeting laws.
On Friday, Cunningham issued an apology for failing to intervene during the confrontation with reporters this week. Frey said his staff will continue to advise the committee on laws on media access to public meetings.
Andy Mannix • 612-673-4036