Officials Cast Cold Eye On Bid To Open Up Their Meetings

November 25, 1990|By Daniel P. Clemens Jr. | Daniel P. Clemens Jr.,Staff writer

Proposed changes in Maryland's Open Meetings Law are drawing a cool reception from administrators and elected officials in Carroll.

A draft bill approved recently by a state Senate subcommittee calls for loosening the law that regulates whether officials can close governmental meetings to the public and the media.

Among the features contained in the measure -- which passed, 3-2, by a subcommittee of the Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee -- is the creation of a three-member board that would settle disputes over whether meetings should be, or should have been, open.

The bill also would establish civil fines for officials who illegally close meetings that should have been open.

While many public officials in Carroll said they think the law could use some retooling, some say the proposals in the draft bill go too far.

"There's a danger in these new proposals," said Elmer C. Lippy, mayor of Manchester who becomes a county commissioner on Dec. 3.

"I'm in favor of free and open communication, but I think there's an element of overkill in the proposed bill," Lippy said.

Sykesville Mayor Lloyd R. Helt Jr. agreed.

"It's a highly volatile issue, but what we have now is adequate," Helt said recently.

Both the Maryland Municipal League and the Maryland Association of Counties have come out in opposition to the possible fines, which would not exceed $100, according to the bill.

The measure says a person must be found to have "knowingly and willfully" closed a meeting illegally in order to face a fine.

In Carroll, some public officials have criticized both the possible fines and the creation of the governor-appointed Open Meetings Law Compliance Board.

"The last thing we need is another board and more government," said Wiley Purkey, a member of the Sykesville Town Council.

The draft bill will be taken up by the General Assembly when it convenes in January.

The current open meetings law -- also referred to as the Sunshine Law -- sets forth situations under which a governmental body can close a meeting, such as during discussion of personnel matters, deliberation of possible real estate purchases and consultations with attorneys.

One significant proposal in the draft bill is elimination of the so-called "catch-all" exemption, which states that a governmental body can close a meeting for any reason, as long as two-thirds of the members vote to do so.

That provision has long been opposed by news organizations, which have viewed it as a carte blanche to close meetings. During the recent revision proceedings, the Maryland Media Confederation, a coalition of state newspapers and broadcasters, lobbied for removal of the provision.

Opinion among Carroll officials is divided on removing the catch-all.

Although Lippy said he sees "unnecessary and cumbersome equipment" in the draft bill, he supports the removal of the catch-all.

"It's devious at the best and defeats the valid and worthy tenets of the (existing) law," he said. "It makes a mockery of the Sunshine Law."

While acknowledging the potential for governmental bodies to abuse the catch-all, Purkey said it should be retained.

"Certainly there are times when things fall into a distinct category," he said. "But obviously there are things that can't be done in a public forum."

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