Contract renewal leads to heated debate at City Council meeting

Thursday, August 4, 2016

The Hyattsville City Council during the Aug. 1 council meeting. Photo courtesy of the City of Hyattsville.

BY LINDSAY MYERS — Disorder broke out at the city council meeting on Monday, Aug. 1, over the renewal of the city’s year-long contract with the Hyattsville Life & Times. After the vote, Councilmember Paula Perry (Ward 4) walked out of the meeting after a heated exchange with Councilmember Shani Warner (Ward 2). Councilmember Joseph Solomon (Ward 5) sparked the debate when he motioned to table the renewal of the contract, saying “I don’t think it has support tonight.”

Councilmember Edouard Haba (Ward 4) tried to stem arguments and move forward with the agenda, saying, “The business of the city goes on whether we are present.”

The City of Hyattsville purchases three pages of advertisement space in each print edition of the Hyattsville Life & Times. It uses that space to advertise city events such as the Hyattsville Summer Jam Series and National Night Out. At the time of the meeting, the contract had already expired and the city has been operating “month-to-month,” according to Jake Rollow, the Director of Community Services & Public Information Office.

Councilmember Patrick Paschall (Ward 3) called the renewal of the contract “not controversial.”

But the contract renewal sparked a debate on the freedom of the press when Councilmember Solomon argued that councilmembers have a right to question the reporting of the paper and deny funding based on news material the members find “troubling.”

Mayor Hollingsworth said the personal opinions of council members toward the Hyattsville Life & Times or its staff should not jeopardize the newspaper’s contract with the city.  

“I think regardless of your opinions of the paper or the administrators who run it, I think it is doing the city a huge disservice to put personal opinions about those particular pieces of the business that are not related to the communication of a public relations message ahead of those pieces. I would really caution all of my colleagues, especially those on the side of either ‘no’ or abstentions, to the degree that it impacts the work of staff,” Mayor Hollingsworth said.

Solomon attempted to clarify, saying, “I understand that the city uses the paper as a mechanism for distributing information, but I also understand that there are other avenues. … I think there are ways that we need to grow how we reach out to residents. These days, not everyone is reading a paper.”

He continued, however, saying, “With regard to the quality of the paper or concerns with issues with the editor, I am not one of those members who has those concerns, I will say in their defense, if [these council members] are voting to give money of our tax payers to this paper, they have every right to take it personally if they feel a certain way about the paper. If that means the paper finds itself where it needs their votes to survive, [the paper] should think about that when they are writing things these members find to be troubling,” said Solomon.

“That is complete antithesis to the freedom of the press,” responded Mayor Hollingsworth.

Councilmember Bart Lawrence (Ward 1), added, “I just want to make it clear that Councilmember Solomon just made an argument that the newspaper should watch what it says about elected officials in the event that it needs a vote to support the paper.”

Councilmember Solomon followed up with the Hyattsville Life & Times on Wednesday, Aug. 3.

“My goal was to prevent the paper from dying,” he said. “I think it spiraled into a conversation about freedom of the press because the mayor made a comment that some councilmembers should get over their opinions, which I think was the wrong tone to set. Councilmembers have the right to feel what they want to feel and the paper has a right to write what it wants. I wouldn’t censure them in any way. I was trying to articulate that this paper is in an awkward position because there is no win for them,” Solomon said.

The debate became heated when Councilmember Warner made a motion to table the discussion until the end of the meeting so that Councilmember Paschall could join the discussion.

Councilmember Perry said, “We’re here to do business, why are we waiting? We’ll get one more member here and it will pass? That’s exactly what Ms. Warner is asking us to do. I think we have a motion in front of us for the Life & Times and I think we should take a vote on it. … But if we are going to sit and take issue, ‘Let’s table it until this day because we know it will fail, but if we wait until another day it’ll pass,’ we could do that to all of our motions.”

Councilmember Perry clarified her usual “no” vote by explaining that the contract was only supposed to be for one year “and then [the paper] was supposed to sustain itself.”

Mayor Hollingsworth attempted to regain order by bringing a vote on whether the issue should be tabled. The vote did not pass. Mayor Hollingsworth then asked if there was any further discussion on the contract before the council would vote on whether to renew it.

Councilmember Perry responded, “No. No. I think it is pretty pathetic that it ended up being this way, but go ahead for the vote.”

Councilmember Warner spoke up before the vote, saying, “Alright, I can’t restrain myself, and probably shouldn’t say this, but if what is pathetic is trying to get the voice of as many possible elected officials as we can on the dais, I think that is a terrible thing to say.”

“No what you are doing is playing games,” said Councilmember Perry.

“This seems like a funny criticism given attendance rates of every member on the council. … I think that if something were important enough to anyone of us they could get here in time to get here for a crucial vote, I would encourage anyone, particularly someone who is not at the meetings regularly to come here and be on the dais and do the job the residents pay us to do,” Councilmember Warner countered.

Councilmember Solomon attempted to tame the situation by raising a point of order, but Councilmember Perry ignored him and Mayor Hollingsworth’s declaration of, “that’s enough.”

“I want to respond. Yes, I have not been here because I have been going through a lot of deaths and if you want to criticise go ahead, but you were playing games,” she said. “Mr. Paschall has not been here all meeting, but you got into touch with him just so he could come up for that. That is playing games, Ms. Warner.”

Mayor Hollingsworth called for a vote on the renewal of the contract. It passed with Councilmember Perry and Councilmember Ruth Ann Frazier (Ward 5) voting “no” and Councilmember Solomon abstaining.

After the vote, Councilmember Perry said, “This is pathetic. Excuse me, mayor, but I’m leaving,” and walked out. Councilmember Frazier also left after the vote.

During the “Council Dialogue” session at the end of the meeting, Councilmember Paschall seemed to defend the contract with the Hyattsville Life & Times, saying it was still the cheapest option available and that “there have been no egregious failures of the Hyattsville Life & Times.”

In regard to the controversy that erupted over the contract renewal, he said,  “I think it’s particularly concerning that accusations of playing games and councilmembers on this dais getting angry then ensued. … I can’t believe I have to say this again, but residents should expect better from their elected officials. Residents should expect their elected officials not to get angry when their colleagues show up to work,” said Paschall.