Open-meetings Bill Should Be Embraced With Open Arms


December 09, 1990|By Edward H. Shur

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

"It's a highly volatile issue, but what we have now is adequate," Sykesville Mayor Lloyd R. Helt Jr. said.

"I feel that ($100 civil penalty on officials) could be a real problem for our municipal governments," said Sen. Sharon W. Hornberger, R-Carroll, Baltimore.

What these officials are stubbornly opposed to is the Senate Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee's recommendation that the 1991 General Assembly strengthen Maryland's Open Meetings (or Sunshine) Law.

They say they are concerned the proposed revisions could force open meetings they feel should be closed and could discourage volunteers from participating on government panels. They also object to the proposed $100 civil fine for government officials who "willfully and knowingly" violate the law.

Like most government officials, they support closed-door meetings.

But members of the Maryland Media Confederation, which includes The Baltimore Sun (our parent), believe most meetings should be open; "Light for all," as our company slogan says.

During the 1990 legislative session, lawmakers could not agree on changes to the Sunshine Law. Hence, a Senate panel was created to work on a compromise. The draft bill, approved by the subcommittee, 3-2, and later by the full committee, 6-3, recommends these revisions: * The creation of a three-member, governor-appointed "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.

Unfortunately, two better solutions -- having two members be deans of the state's two law schools or for all three members to be retired judges -- were defeated.

* Civil fines of no more than $100 for officials who illegally close meetings that ought to be open to the public.

While a number of states impose fines and even criminal penalties and jail terms for violations of open-meetings laws, Maryland municipal officials vehemently opposed the civil penalty.

"I think we should start with a real education program for all government individuals," she said. "Currently, the Maryland Municipal League and the Maryland Association of Counties do the only education. I'd like to see the Media Federation be in it so the general citizenry would be more aware and also serve as watchdogs."

I suggested to her that lawmakers could include both: amend the bill to expand education and allow for a warning after the first violation, and have the fines kick in on subsequent violations.

* Elimination of a catch-all 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. The Maryland Media Confederation, citing a recent University of Maryland Board of Regents closed meeting to consider a possible tuition increase, argued that as long as that loophole remained in the law, other changes were meaningless.

* Requiring the minutes of meetings that were closed legally to be unsealed automatically under certain circumstances.

A major disappointment for the media was the subcommittee's failure -- 3-2 -- to include local and state advisory boards and commissions under the bill's definition of "public body."

In Carroll, the commissioners and municipalities regularly create advisory bodies that should not be closing their deliberations.

"We were trying to respond to problems and concerns these committees have experienced," Hornberger said. "A lot of things in the bill were great compromises on both sides (officials and the media). . . . Neither side is happy."

The bill will be taken up by the full committee when the session convenes next month. Because the 6-3 committee vote was by such a wide margin, a favorable report to the full Senate is expected, with public hearings likely in February.

Expect intense lobbying by municipalities, the MML and MACO to defeat -- or at least weaken -- the bill. But, hopefully, lawmakers will follow tradition; that is bills receiving a favorable report normally pass on the third and final floor reading, albeit sometimes with additional amendments.

We have a law on the books that isn't working. It needs to be changed.

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