Municipal Leaders Tackle Range Of Topics At Resort Meetings

Officials Get Lesson On Changes To Law

July 24, 1991|By Daniel P. Clemens Jr. | Daniel P. Clemens Jr.,Staff writer

OCEAN CITY — The talk centered on sunshine in this Eastern Shore resort town Monday -- but it had nothing to do with getting a tan.

Instead, municipal officials from across the state were steeped in discussion on recent revisions to the so-called sunshine laws, which dictate when government bodies in Maryland can meet behind closed doors.

"These are definitely things we're going to have to get very smart about," said Westminster Councilwoman Rebecca A. Orenstein.

A workshop on changes to the state's Open Meetings Law was one of severalsessions conducted on the first day of the Maryland Municipal League's 44th annual convention.

The MML represents 149 municipal governments in the state.

The non-profit federation works as an advocacygroup for local governments.

More than 400 municipal officials are gathered for the three-day convention, including several from Carroll.

Maryland's Open Meetings Law underwent significant revision during the past session of the General Assembly.

Little of the revamping, however, was embraced by government advocacy groups.

Previously the law gave local governments broad power to close meetings to the public and the media.

The revision eliminated much of that, while retaining the right for governmental bodies to close meetings in instances when the need for confidentiality is warranted.

Monday's session was aimed at educating local government officials about the new law. Unlike most laws passed during the past General Assembly session, the Open Meetings law does not take effect until next July.

That will give governments plenty of time to understand how the new law works, said Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., one of three panelists for the workshop.

"The decision process will be out in the open for all to see," Curran said. "I think it will be a benefit to you all."

Among other changes, the new law will require "quasi-judicial" bodies -- such as zoning appeals boards and liquor boards -- to conduct open meetings.

Westminster Councilman Kenneth A.Yowan, a former member of the city's zoning appeals board, said he thought it made sense to open such meetings.

"The final decision (of a zoning appeals board) is made public, so I don't see where it would be a problem," he said.

Manchester Mayor Earl A.J. "Tim" Warehime had a different view.

"These are volunteer boards. And, in a lot of cases, you have people making decisions that will affect their neighbors," he said.

The moderator for the session, Steven T. Sager, the mayor of Hagerstown, Washington County, passed on an idea his city government uses to ease the transition to the new law.

City officials created a form to be used by any city board that wishes to close a meeting. The form lists the date, time and place of the meetingin question. It also lists the guidelines of the new law, as a reference for city officials.

Both Orenstein and Yowan said that the form sounded like a useful idea and that they would consider suggestingthat the Westminster City Council have something similar on hand.

Although there still are situations under which a meeting can be closed -- such as for discussions about personnel matters, possible realestate transactions, or consultations with legal council -- a government body must limit discussion during a closed session to predetermined subjects.

That might cause a minor efficiency problem, said Yowan and Councilman Stephen R. Chapin Sr., because it's not unusual for a board to gather for one topic and then discuss several others while the group is assembled.

The change in the law is intended to keep bodies from digressing in closed session to matters that should bediscussed in public.

"Now you only discuss at the meeting what you said you'd discuss at the meeting," Yowan said.

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