A House of Delegates committee voted overwhelmingly last night to keep more government meetings open to the public and reporters.
With one abstention and no dissenting votes, the Constitutional and Administrative Law Committee gave preliminary approval to the amended bill, which now goes to the House of Delegates.
A coalition of newspapers and television stations, called the Maryland Media Confederation, has been lobbying intensely for the bill to strengthen Maryland's open-meetings law, which some coalition members say is among the nation's weakest.
The Senate passed the bill by a 45-2 vote last month, over objections from Gov. William Donald Schaefer, the Maryland Association of Counties and the Maryland Municipal League.
The House committee last night approved more than a dozen amendments, including one designed to open the meetings of advisory commissions that have citizen members and are appointed by the governor, county executives or mayors. Such commissions can exclude the public from their deliberations under current law.
The bill seeks to tighten various exemptions in current law under which school boards, county councils, county commissions and other public bodies can meet in secret. The measure would eliminate a loophole that allows meetings to be closed for any "compelling" reason if two-thirds of the members agree.
The bill also would require open meetings for boards that make zoning and land-use decisions.
"One of the things citizens are most suspicious of is how zoning decisions are handled," said Del. Anne S. Perkins, D-City, chairwoman of the House committee.
Under the measure, public bodies could continue to meet privately to obtain legal advice or to discuss personnel matters, land purchases or labor negotiations.
The legislation also would create a compliance board to resolve disputes over whether certain meetings should be closed. It would establish, for the first time, a maximum $100 civil fine that could be assessed against officials who willfully violate the law.
The House committee weakened a section of the bill that would have granted people the right to videotape, photograph and record government meetings.
Some legislators said they believed that a plethora of cameras could be disruptive. The committee voted to require public bodies to adopt reasonable rules on videotaping and photographing.
Len Lazarick, an editor at Patuxent Publishing Co. and spokesman for the confederation, said he was concerned about limitations on cameras. The delegates "are really afraid of all these cameras coming in," he said.
Still, Lazarick said, the bill endorsed by the House committee "is . . . a lot better than what we have now."
Perkins said some delegates might oppose the bill when it comes to the House floor because they worry that "small towns, small groups would be subject to the $100 fine" for violations.
Opponents of the bill contend that the complicated law would be burdensome for part-time members of small local boards.
Supporters, however, say the $100 fine would put "teeth" in the open meetings law and would emphasize the importance of holding public meetings when required.
"One hundred dollars is not a lot of teeth, but it's teeth," said Del. Elijah E. Cummings, D-City.
A similar bill failed last year.