They Work for Us

CAROL A. ARSCOTT

March 09, 1991|By CAROL A. ARSCOTT

ELLICOTT CITY. — At a public hearing before the Senate Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee, Bruce Martin, one of Governor Schaefer's legislative aides, uttered a profound and astonishing truth. A body that deliberates in private, he said, would probably have difficulty advancing its cause before a body that deliberates in public.

Mr. Martin was testifying on a bill designed to strengthen Maryland's open-meetings law. What made his statement astonishing is that he was testifying against it.

He had been responding to a question about whether the governor believed that advisory committees appointed outside the executive-order process should be permitted to meet in private -- or should have been in the case of the Linowes and Barnes commissions.

Mr. Martin didn't directly answer, but suggested that the current law is working well. There are adequate remedies for aggrieved parties through the courts, he said. The perceived problems are anecdotal in nature. It ain't broke. Don't fix it. And then he made that astonishing remark: A body that deliberates in private would probably have difficulty advancing its cause before a body that deliberates in public.

How true. If the Linowes and 2020 commissions had deliberated in public, they might have developed programs that could have been sold to the legislature and the voters. But the damage is already done, and all the PR in the world won't save these expensive misadventures now. Their products have been rejected not only on their merits, but because of a lack of public confidence in the process.

That's what happens when meetings are closed. When reporters are locked out of a meeting, so are we all.

The poisoning of the process turns activism into apathy. I sometimes wonder what will happen when all the people who care have the fight bled out them. If no one seems to care about an issue any more, will a reporter be assigned to write about it? If no one writes about it, did it really happen? Like the proverbial tree falling in the woods: If no one was there to listen, was the meeting open or closed?

To be perfectly fair, the governor's office can't be allowed to shoulder all the blame for standing in the way of improving the open-meetings law. The Maryland Association of Counties and the Maryland Municipal League are equally anxious to keep the public's business private. Public dollars are being used to pay their lobbyists to argue against this legislation. The lobbyists paint a frightening picture of dire consequences and chilling effects, and they were largely successful in gutting the bill that the Maryland Media Confederation backed last year.

Open meetings on sensitive issues would stifle frank and free exchanges, the lobbyists claim. Open meetings would discourage good people from running for office. Open meetings would scare citizens off appointed boards and commissions.

But public officials weren't dragged kicking and screaming into public life. They freely choose to enter public service and work in the public eye. They compete fiercely and sometimes spend much money to secure their positions. As long as they are elected by and working for the public, we have every right to know what they are doing in our name. Jim Doyle, attorney for the Media Confederation, put it plainly in his testimony: ''If you want to do something in private, then stay in the private sector.''

The Association of Counties and the Municipal League lobbyists have convinced me. I'm frightened, but it's not the open meetings that scare me -- it's the ones that are closed. We shouldn't be forced to speculate about what our government officials are doing, and why. It's our right to know. They work for us. They can't be allowed to forget that.

Carol A. Arscott is chairman of the Howard County Republican Party and press secretary for the House Republican Caucus.

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