It may be impolitic to give out hefty pay raises behind closed doors, but it's perfectly legal under the Maryland public meetings law, the state's chief legal counsel said yesterday.
Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. said the regents of the University of Maryland System had the authority to meet behind closed doors to approve a pay scale for campus presidents in June. But he is not advising it.
"I guess it's just a good judgment call when dealing with the public and the subject is really sensitive," he said. "Whether the governor, the General Assembly, or a college professor, they probably all can say they deserved everything they've been given. But it seems to me they ought to be singing their praises in public."
The salary increases for 11 campus presidents, some as high as 17 percent, were based in part on a national survey of what top college officials at different types of colleges and universities are paid. The raises were approved before the regents learned that a state revenue shortfall would force them to absorb severe budget cuts worth $39 million this year. This year's raises and bonuses, which total more than $141,000, are within the total sum earmarked for executive salary increases when the regents passed a budget this time last year.
Mr. Curran said the regents did not seek his opinion. Had they, he said, "I guess I would have probably said [that] issues of salary are obviously a high profile issue, and any time you have a high profile issue it may be good judgment to do it as publicly as possible."
Sen. Frank X. Kelly, D-Baltimore County, vice chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee, said yesterday that when a public body is talking about setting a salary for a specific position rather than evaluating a specific individual, "it should be done in public."
He and several other lawmakers expressed concern yesterday about the timing of the pay increases, but added they may be well deserved.
"[Towson President] Hoke Smith is one of the best. [University of Maryland College Park] President Brit Kirwan has done a fine job at College Park," Mr. Kelly said, "but the question is one of timing."
Compensation is one of those sensitive subjects legitimately discussed in closed session, said Sen. Gerald W. Winegrad, D-Anne Arundel County, who chairs a joint committee on the open meetings law.
He said a media delegation lobbying to tighten the state's public meetings law has endorsed a proposed version of the law that continues to exempt salaries from public discussion.
But Mr. Winegrad said there "ought to be some oversight" for positions at the level of college president.