Open meetings board favored by Senate panel

November 15, 1990|By John W. Frece | John W. Frece,Annapolis Bureau of The Sun

ANNAPOLIS -- A divided Senate panel agreed yesterday to recommend to the 1991 General Assembly a revision of Maryland's open meetings law, including the creation of a compliance board and civil fines for officials who illegally close meetings that ought to be open to the public.

The draft bill, approved, 3-2, by a subcommittee of the Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee, would establish a three-member "Open Meetings Law Compliance Board" designed to resolve quickly and inexpensively disputes over whether governmental meetings should be -- or should have been -- open to the public.

The proposed fines would be no more than $100, and a person would not be liable for the penalty unless the illegal closing was done "knowingly and willfully."

The Senate subcommittee, siding with a coalition of newspaper and broadcast organizations, also agreed to do away with a catchall exemption in the current statute permitting a governmental body to close a meeting for any reason as long as two-thirds of its members vote to do so.

That provision was recently cited by the University of Maryland Board of Regents after it closed a meeting to consider a possible tuition increase.

The Maryland Media Confederation, which includes The Sun, the Annapolis Capital, WBAL television and radio and other news organizations, argued that as long as that loophole remained in the law, other changes were meaningless.

Despite the apparent victories, Tom Marquardt, managing editor of the Capital and president of the confederation, said he had "mixed feelings" about the draft law. Many other changes sought by the coalition were either defeated or modified by the subcommittee.

He said that he was particularly unhappy that the panel decided to make the three members of the Compliance Board appointees of the governor, saying that that robbed the board of its intended neutrality and made it "a political issue."

Proposals calling for two members of the board to be deans of the state's two law schools or for all three members to be retired judges were defeated.

Even more unhappy, however, were representatives of local government, who had succeeded in defeating a proposed revision of the open meetings law in the 1989 legislative session and who fought proposed changes to the law throughout the subcommittee's deliberations this summer and fall.

"We're still not convinced there is a significant problem to the extent this bill addresses. This goes much too far," said Jon Burrell, executive director of the Maryland Municipal League.

Mr. Burrell and Julia Irons, representing the Maryland Association of Counties, said that they opposed the imposition of fines and another proposal that would require the minutes of meetings that were legally closed to be unsealed automatically under certain circumstances.

A number of states impose fines and even criminal penalties and jail terms for violations of open meetings laws.

Mr. Burrell and Ms. Irons said that they were even more concerned that the revision could have unintended consequences, possibly forcing open meetings that, in the legitimate public interest, might be better closed, or by discouraging volunteers from participating on government panels.

Sen. Gerald W. Winegrad, D-Anne Arundel, the subcommittee chairman, said that the draft contained "significant improvements" to the law, but that he was disappointed the panel voted 3-2 against including local and state advisory boards and commissions under the bill's definition of "public body."

The Media Confederation cited examples of advisory bodies that had closed their deliberations to the public and press. Among them: meetings in 1989 of the governor's advisory panel on offtrack betting, and meetings this year of the commission on growth in the Chesapeake Bay region, known as the "2020 Commission."

Participants on both sides of the issue said there was no way to predict how the newly elected General Assembly would greet the open meetings proposal when it convenes in January.

Ms. Irons, noting the substantial changes this month's election brought about at the local level, said she was even uncertain how the new members of the Maryland Association of Counties would feel about it.

James J. Doyle Jr., the veteran lobbyist representing the Media Confederation, said he was "generally satisfied."

"There is a law on the books that isn't working. The committee [with its action] agreed with that," he said.

"It is a subject that is now open. We're in play.

"That's what counts down here," Mr. Doyle said.

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