ANNAPOLIS — It's the time of year when Carroll's eight municipalities are working out the details of their budgets -- the time when questions arise about whether the councils should be conducting their business in public.
Several councils traditionally have conducted private budget work sessions, which in recent years have been challenged by media organizations as a breach of Maryland's open meetings law.
The law requiring public bodies to meet in the open except under special circumstances has a loophole allowing them to close sessions for a "compelling" reason and provides no appeals process, contributing to confusion and often unresolved disputes over what truly justifies a closed meeting.
The General Assembly is attempting to clear up the confusion by revising the law. The version that passed the Senate on March 20 eliminates the provision allowing meetings to be closed for a "compelling" reason with a two-thirds majority vote of the body; creates an Open Meetings Law Compliance Board to settle disputes;establishes a civil penalty of up to $100 for a public official who "knowingly and willfully" violates the law; and outlines records thatmust be made available to the public after a closed session.
Carroll state legislators generally support the revisions, although Sen. Larry E. Haines, R-Carroll, Baltimore, was one of two senators to vote against the bill. He objected to requiring zoning appeals boards toopen post-hearing deliberations.
Carroll's four House members will vote on the measure only if it survives a House committee.
"Meetings should not be closed on the whim of some officials," said Delegate Richard N. Dixon, D-Carroll.
Local officials expressed mixed opinions about the revisions and contend they always meet in the open, except when discussing land acquisition, personnel and legal matters,or other issues exempted from the law.
"I don't support the law; it (the fine) is too punitive," said Sykesville Mayor Lloyd R. Helt Jr. "It assumes that we're doing something behind closed doors, and I don't think that's the case."
He said a clearer definition of whatconstitutes a meeting must be established so municipalities can moreeasily distinguish between informal discussions between a mayor and council members -- an "executive function" -- and public business. But he said he supports eliminating the two-thirds majority vote provision.
Westminster Mayor W. Benjamin Brown said he supported the arbitration board and the civil penalty, adding that he believes the Westminster council several times has closed sessions under "inappropriate circumstances."
"Although I think most public officials are well intentioned, my experience shows we need an appeal mechanism," he said. "Some public officials are too hesitant to do business in public. It's a lesson they have to learn."
The County Commissioners havegone beyond the law, said Executive Assistant Robert A. "Max" Bair, opening staff discussions that could be exempted. They also haven't closed meetings under the two-thirds vote provision, he said.