Officials Enraged By Disclosure


Commissioners' Spin Doctor Warns Carroll Sun: 'Heads Will Roll'

April 07, 1991|By Darren M. Allen

A funny thing happens when you try to upstage a government.

Last week, the County Commissioners announced a major rezoning decision that had been arrived at behind closed doors more than a week earlier.

Announcements of done deals seldom elicit much emotion from the commissioners, their staff or the public.

But it was a different story last Wednesday -- because this newspaper ran an article telling the public what the decision was and offering some of the reasoning

behind the decision.

Before the commissioners had a chance to announce the news themselves.

And that made them, their public information director and their executive assistant quite enraged.

Funny thing, how a story in this newspaper -- which outlined the commissioner's rejection of a rezoning petition of a 360-acre South Carroll farm -- can deliver information about the workings of government, yet get that government so worked up.

Micki Smith, the county's public information director, called me to tell me that "heads are going to roll" because of the story, and that she wanted to know who my sources were.

Commissioner Julia W. Gouge, during an afternoon budget hearing, wanted to know how I arrived at the idea that the commissioners had even made a decision -- and, yes, who my sources were.

As usual, when the dissemination of information is not to the liking of the powers that be, those powers become upset.

Upset probably because our story on the Rash rezoning case was not on their timetable or approved by their public information people.

And upset because they weren't fully calling the shots.

Funny thing, that it's the government -- elected by the people, and ostensibly serving for the people and at the pleasure of the people -- calling the shots when it comes to making laws, spending tax dollars or making rezoning decisions.

Much of what Carroll government does is in the open. Routine staff meetings at which officials tell the commissioners of their daily troubles usually are open to the public.

But far too often, government closes its doors -- when tough decisions are being hashed out -- for "land acquisition" or "legal" reasons, or just about any time that blindfolding the electorate becomes more convenient.

In this case, the Rash rezoning decision was supposed to have been made during a public session March 28. On March 27, however, County Attorney Charles W. "Chuck" Thompson Jr. suggested that the commissioners make the decision -- already a moot point, since Commissioner President Donald I. Dell confirmed to me that week that the decision was made March 26.

They arrived at the decision behind closed doors, since rezonings are "quasi-judicial" proceedings and not subject to Maryland's weak Open Meetings Law.

But not everybody agrees that rezonings are quasi-judicial; indeed, a look at the state Open Meetings Law makes a casefor calling rezonings quasi-legislative. And quasi-legislative deliberations, the law says, are open to public scrutiny.

The difference of opinion aside, the reactions of Smith, Gouge et al. is quite telling.

As the county's information director, Smith is responsible, among other things, for putting the best possible spin on news emanating from the County Office Building and for ensuring that her bosses -- the commissioners -- look good.

We, on the other hand, are responsible for being the eyes and ears of the public and for eliminatingany possible spin on the actions of Smith's bosses.

It seems to me all that needs to happen is for the government to conduct the public's business in public all the time. That way, it's all right there for the public to see.


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