Patronizing the Public

August 08, 1991

If there ever is a hall of fame for public officials whose comments patronize the public, we have a nominee -- Benjamin L. Brown, chairman of the Governor's Redistricting Advisory Committee.

He closed the panel's first work session to the public last week, calling the decision "in the best interests of the citizens." In the future, the public can expect the group to make "certain decisions" privately, he said. "It's not in our best interest and the interest of the public to have it thrashed out in the media on a day-in-day-out basis."

Wait. What is "it" that we Marylanders are better off not hearing about? Wheeling? Dealing? What's going on here, anyway?

"It" has to do with the redrawn congressional district lines this committee will recommend to Gov. William Donald Schaefer in the wake of new Census data.

This is stuff that drives some politicians into cold sweats. But it's hardly worth having secret "work sessions" to start drafting recommendations, especially after commendably traveling to 13 locations around the state for the public's ideas. Judge Brown had described the hearing process as "democracy in action," which seems ironic in light of his non-democratic closed-door meeting.

The decision to close that session was legal -- for now -- under the state's weak open-meetings law. Advisory groups like Mr. Brown's are exempt, a loophole that will vanish none-too-soon in 1992 under a much-strengthened meetings law the 1991 General Assembly approved.

But imagining what sensitive Census data and population patterns need to be debated in private is difficult. The touchiest, most adversarial proposals before the committee are already known, outlined openly no less by the state's congressional members themselves. To comply with the Voting Rights Act, a new minority-controlled district focused on Prince George's County is believed justified. As a result, Maryland's eight congressional districts must be realigned in a way that unavoidably pits two incumbents against one another.

To escape even the perception of deal-making or questionable arguments by elected officials, this realignment must be debated in full view. Public discussion of ideas may be painful to some officials, but it is intrinsically important to how our nation functions. Citizens should not have to guess what's going on. To best serve Maryland, the rest of this committee's meetings should be open. Elected officials on the panel should insist upon it.

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