Council Wants To Keep Boards' Sessions Private

Bill To Open Panels' Work Meetings Is Opposed

January 23, 1991|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Staff writer

Members of the County Council said yesterday they want to keep deliberations of three county boards that rule on public issues closed to the public.

The council last week voted 4-0, with chairman C. Vernon Gray, D-3rd, absent, to recommend keeping work sessions of the Liquor Board, Zoning Board and Board of Appeals out of the public eye.

Under the state's existing open meetings law, the sessions can remain closed. However, a bill pending before the state legislature proposes revisions to the law that would open those sessions, as well as other governmental meetings. Among those pushing for revisions is the Maryland Media Confederation, a coalition of broadcast and newspaper organizations that includes The Sun.

The effort to change the law has met with opposition from government bodies that include the Maryland Association of Counties, the Maryland Municipal League and thegovernor's office.

Council members have asked the county solicitor and council executive secretary to draft a letter to the legislature opposing the suggested revision in the state's open meetings law.

They say that opening the sessions would harm the ability of members of those bodies -- the zoning and liquor boards are comprised of council members -- to adequately discuss matters.

Council members say that when they meet as the Liquor Board and the Zoning Board, they are meeting as "quasi-judicial" bodies that operate under a differentset of rules than when they meet legislatively as the council. The Board of Appeals, which is appointed by the council, also operates in what members call a quasi-judicial function.

The three boards hearcases much like a court does, with sworn testimony, exhibits, cross-examination, representation by attorneys and introduction of evidenceand exhibits.

Council members say their deliberations when arriving at a verdict are as sacrosanct as a judge's or jury's deliberations would be.

"I don't know if you would get a fairer decision if the public were to watch" how the decision is made, said Councilman Charles Feaga, R-5th.

Council members might not be as candid as they are now in evaluating witnesses and evidence if the deliberations were public, Feaga said. Candid conversation about a case allows "a coming-to-minds," he said.

Councilman Paul Farragut, D-3rd, said that while he believes most meetings should be open, "sensitive things arediscussed" at work sessions of the zoning and liquor boards.

Those boards now "talk freely back and forth about (the) issues" before them, Farragut said. "I'm not so sure they would speak so freely aboutit if they knew they were going to be quoted."

Farragut thinks opening the work sessions could put undue pressure on members. "Supposethe board is 90 percent sure how members will vote, but one member is teetering. Imagine the presure (from the public) put on the one teetering if the vote is 2-2."

Councilwoman Shane Pendergrass, D-1st,says she supports open meetings "when appropriate, which is almost all cases." Like her colleagues, she wants quasi-judicial work sessions to remain closed.

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