Public Access Is Still An Issue Despite Laws

Carroll Sun Asks For Open Meetings, Disclosure

December 16, 1990|By Darren M. Allen | Darren M. Allen,Staff writer

Next month, public officials in Carroll will begin serious talk about their spending plans but, for the most part, the public won't be in on the discussions.

While most of the county's elected leaders generally agree that the public has a right to know how its money will be spent, some see nothing wrong with keeping the public away from budget workshops, public employee salaries and other financial details.

While Maryland law gives elected officials broad leeway in deciding what is public, at least two municipal councils in Carroll County have been challenged this year for refusing to open their proceedings to the public.

The Carroll County Sun tried to open a closed budget session this April in Taneytown and pressed last week for the salary of Mount Airy's newly hired town planner.

A month after the paper challenged Taneytown's closed budget workshop, the City Council changed the wording in its code to make sure it and the city charter agreed. It eliminated ambiguous language and gave the city the right to close the meeting if a majority of council members agree.

"I really don't think they have a problem with the sessions being held in the open," said Neal W. Powell, Taneytown's city manager and a former mayor. "But we consider that most people in the audience wouldn't be able to make heads or tails of our discussions. What (the council does) is up to them."

Thomas F. Stansfield, the Westminster attorney representing the Taneytown council, advised it to close their work session. He also advised them to closely monitor any inspections of their financial records.

"Unless you are in a position to provide us a list in some detail of the documents you wish to inspect, we do not have the personnel or facilities to allow an unlimited review of all accessible City records," Stansfield wrote in a letter to the newspaper.

The situation in Mount Airy involves the state's Freedom of Information Act.

Compared to the state's "sunshine law," or open meeting legislation, FOI is more specific and gives the public access to most information compiled by, about or for public bodies.

But last week, Mount Airy Mayor Gerald R. Johnson Jr. declined to reveal the salary of their newly hired town planner, Teresa Merten.

State law says such information is part of the public record and must be made available to the public on request.

The newspaper Wednesday filed its formal request for the information.

The town has 30 days to respond.

Charles O. Fisher Sr., Mount Airy's Westminster attorney, said that while the mayor and council have yet to contact him about the request for Merten's salary, he generally believes that such information is not appropriate for publication in a newspaper.

"We don't usually release salaries; those are discussed in executive session," Fisher said Friday. "The council doesn't publish them, and many employees don't want it in the newspaper."

In general, requests for opening meetings or for gathering specific pieces of information are initiated by the press, not citizens.

"We almost never get a request from a citizen," Taneytown's Powell said.

"They trust us, and the press doesn't."

The situations in both Taneytown and Mount Airy come during a year when the debate over the effectiveness of the state's sunshine law has resulted in a push to change it. Generally, municipal and county officials say it -- and its 14 possible reasons for closing -- is acceptable the way it is.

Others -- including the press and civil liberties activists -- disagree.

"The public has a right to know what its government is doing," said Stuart Comstock-Gay, director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland. "It's really a disgrace, especially since open meetings laws and the Freedom of Information Act continue to be broken or cut."

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