Weakening of open-meetings changes rejected

March 06, 1991|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,Annapolis Bureau of The Sun

ANNAPOLIS -- In key action yesterday, a Senate subcommittee rejected attempts by local governments and the Schaefer administration to weaken a revision of the state's open-meetings law.

The five-member subcommittee chaired by Sen. Gerald W. Winegrad, D-Anne Arundel, was especially established to deal with the open-meetings law revisions backed by a group of Maryland newspapers and broadcasters. The full Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee is expected to vote on the revised bill Friday.

The subcommittee voted 3-1 to recommend the bill to the full committee. Senators Winegrad, Michael J. Collins, D-Baltimore County, and C. Bernard Fowler, D-Calvert, voted to recommend the bill. Sen. American Joe Miedusiewski, D-Baltimore, dissented. Sen. Larry E. Haines, R-Carroll, left the meeting before the vote.

During its session yesterday, the subcommittee declined to restore a provision that would allow public bodies to hold closed meetings if two-thirds of the members decided there was "a compelling reason" to do so. That provision is one of 14 exemptions in the state's current open-meetings law and is considered by critics to be a loophole permitting a public body to close any meeting for any reason.

Another amendment rejected yesterday would have struck from the proposed revision of the law a $100 civil penalty for any member of a public body who "knowingly and willfully" participated in a meeting that violated the open-meetings law.

The subcommittee did make several relatively minor changes to the bill, including one seeking to clarify the definition of "land use" so it pertains solely to zoning matters and not those regarding acquisition of property.

Supporters of that change have said "land use" could be misinterpreted to include land acquisition, an action that the law says government bodies may conduct in private.

Senator Collins said the minor changes in the bill did not jeopardize its chances of being approved by the full committee. Usually, he said, the full committee supports the decisions of its subcommittees.

Other changes approved by the work group include delaying the bill's effective date from Jan. 1,1992, to July 1, 1992, and increasing the number of days for a public body to file a written response to a complaint. The amended bill would extend the period from 10 days to 15 days.

Another amendment would delay the time for filing a complaint in court until after the proposed new Open Meetings Law Compliance Board makes a decision on the complaint and mails out its opinion.

The three-member board, appointed by the governor, would render quick decisions on which governmental meetings may be legally closed to the public and news media.

The open-meetings law revisions are the product of more than a year's work by the Winegrad subcommittee, including meetings throughout the summer and testimony from media and government representatives.

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