The Howard County Council came out yesterday against provisions of an open meetings bill now before the General Assembly that would require decision-making sessions of the zoning and liquor boards to be conducted in public.
Council members agreed with the acting county solicitor, Barbara M. Cook, who warned them that the measure "would drive you off to the men's room and ladies' room to make decisions."
"It will have a chilling effect, and board members will be afraid to per
suade other members and be inclined not to talk when they have all the people staring at them," she said.
But Tom Marquardt, president of the Maryland Media Federation, a group of news organizations pressing for the open meetings bill, challenged the reasoning of Ms. Cook and the council.
"The public should be entitled to access to the deliberations of liquor and zoning boards because the subjects interest them deeply," said Mr. Marquardt, managing editor of the Capital in Annapolis. "I would challenge them to ask the public how they feel."
The council members who favored keeping decision-making sessions closed were Shane Pendergrass, D-1st, Charles C. Feaga, R-5th, Darrel E. Drown, R-2nd, and Paul R. Farragut, D-4th. Chairman C. Vernon Gray, D-3rd, was absent when the issue came up.
In addition to the liquor and zoning boards, which are made up of the council members, the legislation would affect the Board of Appeals, whose members are appointed by the council.
All three boards make decisions in private after holding public hearings to gather evidence. Board members then release a written decision, laying out evidence in the case and their reasoning.
"I have trouble opening quasi-judicial deliberations," said Ms. Pendergrass, who chairs the zoning board. "It is like inviting the press and citizens into a jury's deliberation. I think it could affect land-use decisions and give people grounds to appeals that are not related to issues."
Ms. Pendergrass said she also disapproved of a provision in the bill that would hold members of a public body subject to a $100 civil fine for participating in a closed meeting in violation of the proposed law.
"It is not right that members of volunteer boards can open themselves up to civil penalties," she said.