ANNAPOLIS -- A Senate committee agreed yesterday to consider next month a redrafted and strengthened version of the state's open-meetings law, but the 6-3 vote reflected continued opposition to the measure, especially among rural lawmakers.
Sen. Clarence W. Blount, D-Baltimore, chairman of the Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee, said the open-meetings issue would have come before the committee in the 1991 General Assembly session regardless of how it voted yesterday. But he said he was pleased the committee agreed to use as a starting point the draft legislation produced by a subcommittee that worked on the issue all summer and fall.
The proposed revision would establish a new three-member Open Meetings Law Compliance Board to render quick, inexpensive decisions on whether specific meetings should be -- or should have been -- open to the public and news media.
It also would clarify or eliminate certain exemptions in the current law determining which government meetings must be opened to the public.
The Maryland Media Confederation, a coalition of newspaper and broadcast organizations that has lobbied for changes to the law for well over a year, claimed some of the exemptions were being abused by governmental bodies as excuses to close meetings that should have remained open.
The bill also would establish, for the first time, a civil fine of up to $100 for government officials who "willfully and knowingly" violate the law.
"Sunshine is the best disinfectant," said Sen. Gerald W. Winegrad, D-Anne Arundel, who chaired the subcommittee and recommended the draft's approval.
"We're very pleased with the vote of approval, but we know realistically that the road ahead of us is very uphill," said Tom Marquardt, managing editor of the Annapolis Capital and president of the coalition.
The coalition includes The Sun, the Frederick News-Post, WBAL-TV and radio, and other news organizations.
He predicted intense lobbying to weaken or defeat the bill once it is formally introduced.
Voting against the measure were Sens. Patricia Cushwa, D-Washington, Sharon W. Hornberger, R-Carroll, and American Joe Miedusiewski, D-Baltimore.
Ms. Cushwa and Ms. Hornberger said municipal and other local officials in their counties oppose the proposed changes.
The effort to change the open meetings law has met stubborn opposition from the Maryland Association of Counties, the Maryland Municipal League, some local boards of education, and the office of Gov. William Donald Schaefer.
Julia Irons, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Association of Counties and member of a work group that had assisted the subcommittee, said local governments fear the strengthened bill could result in liability suits against officials. She also said it could discourage volunteers from participating on government advisory panels.
She conceded, however, that if the draft bill is enacted into law, one likely effect is that government officials "would certainly be a lot more careful in closing meetings."