Organizers of the city's "conversations on teen pregnancy" are emphasizing a strict separation between the community forums and ongoing public policy discussions as news organizations challenge a decision to bar them from the events.
"The School Committee is not doing this," School Committee member Melissa Teixeira said. "It is not geared toward policy."
The idea of public forums on teen pregnancy started with Mayor Carolyn Kirk, who likened them to the "listening post" meetings held during the spring on the future of Gloucester Harbor.
But after the meetings were announced, the city was contacted by the Public Conversations Project, a group of trained mediators from Watertown who specialize in initiating discussions between groups on opposite sides of emotional issues.
The Conversations Project offered to run and moderate the meetings, no longer called listening posts, without a School Committee or city presence, and recommended they be closed to the press and open to only Gloucester residents.
The reason was that by keeping cameras, reporters and outside advocacy groups out of the meetings, residents would be free to speak openly, share their feelings and come together as a community.
The city agreed and a group that had been organizing the forums, which includes Teixeira, Public Health Director Jack Vondras and Lianne Cook, the executive director of HealthQuarters in Beverly, began working with representatives of the Conversations Project.
But not all members of the press have agreed.
The Times, whose Gloucester-resident staffers would be able to attend the meetings, yesterday announced its decision to challenge the decision to bar other news outlets.
"We are certainly going to challenge this and are actively looking at our legal options," Editor Ray Lamont said. "It is disappointing that they would make an end run around public meeting laws. Anything called public conversations should be open and accessible."
The Massachusetts Open Meeting Law requires meetings of official government bodies to be conducted in public and open to the press, but the "conversations" will not be run by any city committee or department, nor include a quorum of any board in attendance, Teixeira said.
Four of five Conversations Project staffers will be conducting the events and taking notes, she said, and funding to pay for it will be provided by a series of grants secured by the Conversations Project and HealthQuarters. The source of those grants was not available yesterday.
She said members of the group working to organize the conversations had been looking forward to attending the events, but had decided it would be better not to.
No representative of the city or schools will be available to answer questions or officially partake in the dialogue, she said.
The School Committee is meeting at 7 p.m. tomorrow at City Hall and "confirm the establishment of a series of Community Conversations" is included as an action item on the agenda.
Patrick Anderson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.