House passes bill to curb secret sessions

April 06, 1991|By John W. Frece | John W. Frece,Annapolis Bureau of The Sun

ANNAPOLIS -- The House of Delegates voted overwhelmingly yesterday for legislation designed to make it harder for state or local governments in Maryland to conduct their business in secret.

By a 110-10 vote, the House approved a major revision of the state's open meetings law, and sponsors of a bill in the Senate immediately said they were likely to accept the slightly stronger House version.

If, as expected, the Senate does so before Monday's midnight adjournment, only a potential veto from Gov. William Donald Schaefer could stand in the way of the bill's becoming law. A legislative assistant to Mr. Schaefer said yesterday that it was "premature" to say what the governor would do.

"We had opposed the bill. There are some amendments we are concerned about. We'll be looking at it," said a gubernatorial aide, Bruce Martin.

Before gaining final passage of the bill in the House, backers withstood challenges to a provision added by a House committee that would require advisory commissions to the governor or to local governments to hold all their meetings in public.

Delegates also attempted without success to weaken the bill's requirements that all boards that issue licenses -- such as local liquor boards -- or that make zoning decisions hold not only their hearings in public but also their decision-making meetings.

"It is very important that people trust government, trust the executive, trust people on zoning boards, trust us," said Delegate Anne S. Perkins, D-Baltimore, chairman of the Constitutional and Administrative Law Committee and floor leader for the bill.

The measure has been pushed for more than a year by the MarylandMedia Confederation, an ad hoc group of newspapers and broadcast organizations that include The Sun, the Annapolis Capital, Patuxent Publishing Corp., the Washington Post, WBAL television and radio and other Maryland news organizations. The news organizations hired senior Annapolis lobbyist James J. Doyle Jr. to argue their case before the General Assembly, and they actively participated in legislative work sessions on the issue for most of the past year.

"To say we're pleased by the outcome is an understatement," said Tom Marquardt, managing editor of the Capital in Annapolis and president of the news coalition. "This bill is as strong or stronger than what we asked for."

"We feel the message both the House and Senate is sending is that they are indeed all for open meetings and they want to let the sunshine in just like the media and the public does," he said.

He added, "We're very concerned that a veto is imminent. All we ask is that [the governor] set aside his anger against the media and think about the people."

Mr. Schaefer was not the only one who opposed changes to the open meetings law. Representatives of the Maryland Association Counties and the Maryland Municipal League fought most of the proposed changes to the very end, arguing that the revisions were unnecessary and went too far.

Legislators said yesterday they were inundated by 11th-hour callsfrom local officials from their districts opposing the revision.

But Ms. Perkins told her House colleagues that 30 other states had open meetings laws that applied to advisory boards and that 34 other states had laws that applied to zoning boards.

"We are not on the cutting edge of open meetings laws," she said.

The bill would establish a three-member Open Meetings Compliance Board to provide quick and inexpensive advisory opinions on whether governmental meetings may be legally closed. The measure also tightens the wording of a number of exemptions that permit governmental meetings to be closed under certain circumstances, such as to discuss personnel or legal matters, criminal investigations or contracts or bids.

The measure also institutes for the first time in Maryland a $100 fine for persons who willfully participate in a closed meeting they know should have been open under the open meetings law.

Sen. Gerald W. Winegrad, D-Anne Arundel, who co-chaired a summer and fall open meetings subcommittee, said he had reviewed the House changes with other key members of Senate Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee. "It will be our recommendation to the committee that we concur. I think the House, for the most part, did a good job," he said.

He noted that the House amendment including advisory commissions had been defeated by his subcommittee on a 3-2 '' vote but said, "It is something I've always advocated."

Supporters of the bill complained that loopholes in the current law permitted major policy-making advisory commissions, such as the governor's "2020 Commission" on growth in the Chesapeake Bay region, to meet in private legally.

"With that provision, the odds are better than 50-50 [the governor] will veto it. So, we have to talk already about an override," Mr. Winegrad said.

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