The Ehrlich administration announced yesterday it will evict the Maryland press corps from its long-held offices in the basement of the State House by the middle of next month, saying that the space is needed by gubernatorial staff members during renovations.
The space will be unavailable to the press for about three years - beyond the end of the current term of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who is expected to seek re-election in 2006.
Then, reporters would share a single room in the basement called "the bullpen" that is currently used by journalists from smaller newspapers.
The eviction comes on the heels of the removal earlier this month of newspaper boxes from the State House basement corridors for security reasons, according to state officials. Some journalists, however, interpreted the action as a slap at the press.
The news media have been assigned State House offices since at least 1961. Boyd Rutherford, Maryland's secretary of General Services, said yesterday that the shift in offices was unavoidable. "The last viable solution was the space that is currently being used by the press," Rutherford said. "I asked the governor's office to explore if some of their people could be at distant locations, outside the State House. They wanted to keep as many of them together as possible."
In the letter sent yesterday to news media outlets, Rutherford wrote that there was an "immediate need" to repair the building's water pipes, though the project has been on the books since 1998.
Though cramped and drab, the press office provides proximity to the House and Senate chambers and quick access to the state's top elected officials. Often when the legislature is in session, politicians seeking to make their case in print or on the air wander through the offices, seeking a receptive audience.
Ehrlich has had a love-hate relationship with the news media: He prefers talk radio, television stations and smaller outlets, such as newspapers from the Eastern Shore and Western Maryland, to the state's two largest newspapers, The Sun and the Washington Post, both of which he has sharply criticized.
The Sun and the Post also maintain bureaus within walking distance of the State House, but many other publications do not.
Journalists from several media outlets said yesterday that the move would curtail the ability of reporters to gather news. "It's going to really hamper coverage," said Lou Davis, who recently retired after covering Annapolis for more than two decades for WMAR-TV.
"Being in the building is very important to us. When stories broke, we could run upstairs and collar people. If we're not there, we will lose that," he said.
Timothy A. Franklin, editor and senior vice president of The Sun, called Rutherford's move disappointing.
"For decades, not just The Sun but other Maryland media have been in the State House because there was a recognition that the public and voters are better served when reporters have ready access to public officials. This is an impediment," Franklin said. "We are the eyes and ears of the public. We have the obligation to be the watchdog over the government."
Maryland House Speaker Michael E. Busch said he also opposed the eviction - primarily, he said, because it sends the wrong signal to the public. "I feel pretty strongly that the media - be it the press or the electronic media - should have a strong presence in the State House," Busch said.
But Rutherford rejected the idea that reporters will lose their ability to report the news from Annapolis. "That's just a red herring," he said yesterday. "They still have access. They just won't be resident in the building."
Busch also faulted the governor's staff for failing to consult him. Busch, Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, and state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller sit on the four-person board of the State House Trust - a body that is charged by law with overseeing all renovations there, according to its Web site.