Open Those Meetings!

December 02, 1990

When the Senate Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee gathers Tuesday, it ought to endorse a measure to close loopholes in the state's open meetings law and make it harder for officials to shut the door on the public. Anything less would deny Maryland's citizens their fundamental right to know what is going on in government.

Yet representatives of local governments and members of Gov. William Donald Schaefer's staff have strenuously resisted these changes and have tried to kill efforts to give newspapers and citizens greater access to meetings of public bodies.

That is simply the wrong way to go. Given the public's growing disenchantment with government and elected officials, and the distrust voters expressed with incumbents on Nov. 6, state legislators should eagerly embrace this proposal. Otherwise, the message will go out loud and clear that the Annapolis Establishment sanctions government by stealth.

As drafted by a subcommittee headed by Sen. Gerald Winegrad, the proposed legislation would stop panels from holding closed-door meetings whenever they decide there is a "compelling" reason. Instead, there would be a Compliance Board for state and local panels to seek advisory opinions on shutting out the public. Any closed meetings, though, would have to be tape recorded or a written record kept of the proceedings. That information would be made public later.

These are significant improvements in the current law. The full Senate panel ought to consider other steps, too, especially removing another much-abused exception for closing meetings -- personnel" matters. It would be far more sensible to let the employee under discussion decide if he or she wants the press and public excluded. The committee also should broaden the scope of the open meetings law so advisory panels and fTC quasi-public agencies are included.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. championed a

broader open meetings law last session but has been conspicuously silent since then. We trust that Mr. Miller will throw his considerable influence behind the the Winegrad subcommittee's proposal and that this issue will receive favorable consideration from Mr. Miller's colleagues in the next General Assembly session.

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