Where’s transparency? Media banned from homeless meeting

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It was the community meeting where not everyone in the community could attend. In fact, it was a community meeting where really no one in the community could attend, unless you received an invitation, and were not a member of the media.

Just weeks after the city’s homeless services department finalized a controversial agreement to move more than 80 families into what was supposed to be market-rate housing at 5731 Broadway, the agency conducted its first “community advisory” meeting Nov. 15 designed to provide transparency to the process.

That transparency, however, does not allow public participation nor media scrutiny after The Riverdale Press was told it could not attend.

The reason, according to the homeless services department? Concerns that media coverage could violate the privacy of its residents.

That restriction not only was a surprise to The Press, but also to one of the public officials scheduled to attend — Community Board 8 chair Rosemary Ginty.

“As soon as I learned The Press was barred from the meeting, I decided not to attend,” Ginty said after walking out of the meeting room.

If a meeting is open to the public, she added, that openness should also include the media.

Ginty is used to having to balance media oversight with privacy during her time with CB8. Executive committee meetings, for example, are open to the public and the media — but if there is something discussed that can’t be made public, the meeting is closed just long enough for that topic to be discussed, and then quickly re-opened afterward.

The city’s homeless services department, however, operates under different rules. Because the department is an agency and not a public body, it doesn’t always have to follow open media rules in place for a group like a community board or school board.

Isaac McGinn, a spokesman for the city’s homeless services department, wouldn’t directly address why its community advisory board was closed to the public, but said in a statement that the agency looked forward to “ongoing open dialogue with the community to ensure that our clients are welcomed as neighbors and any concerns are proactively addressed as they arise.”

What was so secret in the Nov. 15 meeting that the public and The Press couldn’t observe?

Ivan Braun of the new social group Welcoming Neighbors, said the 15 to 25 who attended were told the 5731 Broadway facility is now almost fully occupied. Residents there are getting to learn the neighborhood. The homeless services department is smoothing any transfers needed for children living at 5731 Broadway attending local schools.

While Braun wasn’t quite sure what at this particular meeting should have been shielded from the media, he does understand the need to keep personal details of the residents living there private.

The policy, according to an agency official, is designed to protect any names of 5731 Broadway residents from making it out into the public, since actual names may come up from time to time.

Yet, one elected official also was scratching his head when it came to the decision to close the meeting.

“I don’t think it makes a lot of sense to keep the public out of the meeting,” said Councilman Andrew Cohen, who had his chief of staff attend the meeting in his place.

“I understand that there were privacy issues related to the individuals, but that was not the purpose of the press being there.”

Cohen has been a critic of opening 5731 Broadway as a transitional shelter not just because of the secretive means behind its planning, but also because of its impact on already crowded neighboring schools.

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