ANNAPOLIS -- A Senate committee overwhelmingly approved a bill yesterday that strengthens Maryland's open-meetings law and closes a legal loophole that had allowed agencies to bar the public.
The Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee passed the bill by a vote of 9 to 2. Local governments and the Schaefer administration had sought to preserve much of the current law while a group of Maryland newspapers and broadcasters advocated wholesale changes.
Sen. Gerald W. Winegrad, D-Anne Arundel, who chaired the special subcommittee established to work on the bill, said the committee's strong support should give the bill a good chance of passing the full Senate.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., who sponsored a similar bill last year, spoke in support of the committee's bill during a hearing last month.
Senator Winegrad said amendments to the bill, which were approved unanimously, were not controversial.
The current bill strikes down an exemption in the existing law that allows public bodies to hold closed meetings if two-thirds of the members decided there was a "compelling reason" to do so. Critics said the exemption, one of 14 in the state's open meetings law, was a loophole permitting a public body to close a meeting for any reason.
"Maryland is the only state that has such a blanket exemption," Senator Winegrad told his colleagues yesterday.
Eliminating the exemption was one of the tougher issues handled by the committee, Mr. Winegrad said. The bill also establishes a three-member Open Meetings Compliance Board. "There was no one who was against [the board], except the governor's office, and they were against everything in the bill," he said.
As approved yesterday, the bill establishes a $100 civil penalty for any member of a public body who "knowingly and willfully" participates in a meeting that violates the open meetings law. Another amendment delays the bill's effective date from Jan. 1, 1992, to July 1, 1992.
During yesterday's voting session, Sen. C. Bernard Fowler, D-Calvert, said he supported a new provision in the bill that would define "land use" in such a way that meetings on zoning matters would be public while government discussions about buying property would remain private.
"That, I really think, is the toughest part of the bill," he said. "I always felt very comfortable when I had a roomful of people. It made you think."
But Sen. Larry E. Haines, R-Carroll, said he thought opening zoning meetings could present problems.
"I think the members of these boards are going to feel very limited and restricted if these meetings are open," he said. "I think it might drive these members to discuss these matters in private, anyway."
Here is how the Senate Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee voted yesterday on a bill to strengthen Maryland's open-meetings law:
Clarence W. Blount, D-Baltimore -- chairman
Arthur Dorman, D-Prince George's -- vice chairman
Michael J. Collins, D-Baltimore County
C. Bernard Fowler, D-Calvert
Idamae Garrott, D-Montgomery
Paula C. Hollinger, D-Baltimore County
Gloria Lawlah, D-Prince George's
Christopher J. McCabe, R-Howard
Gerald W. Winegrad, D-Anne Arundel County
Larry E. Haines, R-Carroll
American Joe Miedusiewski, D-Baltimore