Open Meetings Roadblock?

April 02, 1991

Today, members of the House Constitutional and Administrative Law Committee will spend most of their time becoming experts on the state's open-meetings law, a statute filled with so many loopholes that government bodies can easily shut their doors to keep out the public for the most superficial reasons. Delegates won't have any trouble recognizing the law's flaws.

Yet Del. Anne S. Perkins, who chairs the House panel, already is complaining about the lack of time the committee has to grasp the essence of this issue. The bill was the product of a long Senate subcommittee study that worked out changes with representatives of local governments and the media. Delegates did not deal with the open-meetings controversy until the Senate-passed bill arrived on Ms. Perkins' doorstep last week.

It does not take a rocket scientist to understand why revisions are needed in Maryland's open-meetings statute. The 13-year-old law has so many exemptions that local officials can conduct private, closed sessions virtually any time they wish. The fate of important public policy issues then ends up being discussed and decided in secret. This leads to the kind of backroom meetings that destroys the public's confidence in its own government.

The biggest irony is that state legislators operate fully in the open, with the public and press having access to all legislative meetings. Without exception. Why, then, should local government bodies and gubernatorial boards and commissions be allowed to operate in the shadows?

Forcing other public groups to let the sunshine in is what legislators intended when the law was first put on the books 13 years ago. Senate revisions would eliminate the most egregious loopholes and set up a special board to give quick advisory opinions about the legality of secret meetings. This should keep closed sessions to a minimum and ensure that they occur only for legitimate reasons.

Too much work has gone into this bill for Ms. Perkins' committee to block its passage. The delegates held a five-hour hearing on it last week and a work group has been studying the bill since then. After today's sessions on the bill, they should have plenty of background in the subject matter. There have been too many abuses of the open-meetings law over the years. It is time to close the loopholes -- and ensure that the public's business is indeed conducted in full view of the public.

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