David Cohen
Former Newton mayor keeps press away from $191m school

At a cost of $191 million, the new Newton North High School is the most expensive public school in Massachusetts. Cost overruns have been the rule rather than the exception.

So when the city's board of aldermen was invited to tour the nearly completed school last summer, folks at the weekly Newton Tab were understandably eager to tag along. But even though the walk-through had been announced as an official public meeting, a reporter and a photographer who showed up were told they weren't invited.

"It's an essentially private event on private property," Jeremy Solomon, spokesman for then–Newton mayor DAVID COHEN, told the Tab, thus imparting an entirely new meaning to the word private. Solomon added: "It doesn't entitle the media to attend. Elected officials deserve the courtesy to ask any questions without being concerned about how they're portrayed in the Tab."

According to Solomon, it was the contractor, Dimeo Construction, that closed the tour to the media. And even though the tour had been posted as a public meeting, it doesn't appear that the city violated the open-meeting law: a quorum of aldermen failed to show, and in any case there is an "on-site inspection" exemption in the state's open-meeting law.

But Cohen, as the mayor, should have insisted that the press be allowed to cover the story — not act as an enabler for a private company whose priority, understandably, is building things, not protecting the public's right to know.

The situation only became more laughable in the ensuing weeks. First, Alderman Ken Parker, who did go on the tour, took a photo with his iPhone and promptly sent it along to the Tab. Then Cohen set up a tour that a reporter — but not a photographer — was allowed to attend, explaining, "Photographs by the Tab are not essential to reporting on the progress that has been made at the site. The progress on the site is undeniable and clear to even the most casual of observers."

Finally, in December, just three weeks before turning over the keys to mayor-elect Setti Warren, Cohen allowed full media access to the school site. The Tab was even allowed to shoot a video.

But Cohen's original notion that the public had no right to see what it had paid so dearly for was an example of official arrogance at its worst.

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