Both sides fault draft of revised open-meetings law

October 17, 1990|By James Bock | James Bock,Annapolis Bureau of The Sun

ANNAPOLIS -- Media executives and government representatives remained at loggerheads yesterday over revamping the state's open-meetings law as a Senate subcommittee neared completion of a compromise reform bill that pleased neither side.

"The only consensus is that we can't reach consensus," said a frustrated Sen. Gerald W. Winegrad, D-Anne Arundel, co-chairman of the subcommittee that has worked with media and government representatives for 3 1/2 months to draft a reform measure.

Mr. Winegrad said the five-member subcommittee would vote on the bill at a final meeting Nov. 14. He predicted that a "fairly decent bill" would emerge for consideration by the Senate Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee in the 1991 legislative session.

But the draft bill that was on the table during a two-hour meeting yesterday was criticized by proponents and opponents of reform.

Even the deputy attorney general suggested that the bill as written would swamp a proposed Open Meetings Law Compliance Board -- a panel suggested by his boss, Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. -- with "an incredible flow of paper" that would be expensive to handle.

The draft requires any public body that closes a meeting to notify the board in writing.

"I'm just concerned this board will get paperwork like nobody's business, won't be able to process it, and everybody will say what a failure the board is," said Dennis M. Sweeney, the Maryland deputy attorney general.

The draft bill would make several significant changes in the open-meetings law. It would:

* Set up a three-member compliance board to review and resolve complaints about closed meetings, advise public bodies on complying with the law, and recommend improvements in the law to the General Assembly.

* Force public bodies to tell the board in writing when and why they closed meetings.

* Establish a civil penalty of up to $100 for any member of a public body found by a court to have "willfully" violated the law.

However, the draft bill leaves intact a provision of the current law that allows any public body to close a meeting by a two-thirds vote of those present if it finds there is a "compelling" reason to do so.

Tom Marquardt, managing editor of the Annapolis Capital and president of the Maryland Media Confederation, a coalition of newspaper, radio and television executives formed to push for reform of the law, said the provision was "a strong detriment to the open-meetings law, and that has to go."

"We may have taken care of some minor loopholes, but major ones remain that you could drive a truck through," he said.

The media executives say officials too often abuse the reasons now allowed for closing meetings simply to shield themselves from public scrutiny.

Opponents, however, said the draft bill made unwarranted changes in the law that would hamper the effectiveness of local government.

"Do we think there's any need to change the law? Not really," said Julia Irons of the Maryland Association of Counties.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.