This past week we learned that a County Council member is drafting abill to place new restrictions on where adult bookstores are locatedand how they operate.
We also learned that this draft apparently is for the eyes only of a choice few -- namely council member Philip J. Barker, the bill's author, and State's Attorney Joseph Cassilly, who suggested the legislation.
Listen to this tale and see if you are as surprised -- and alarmed -- as I am about what happened when we tried to get a copy of the draft and let the public know what the council has in mind for adult bookstores.
First, a reporter asked Councilman Barker for a copy. He said he could not provide the reporter with a copy because he didn't want to circulate it to the public until other council members had seen it.
Now, Barker is no political neophyte. He served on the Havre de Grace City Council for years before his election to the CountyCouncil. He knows public officials have a responsibility to allow citizens access to their government.
Next the reporter went to Jeffrey D. Wilson, the council president. Let us recall that Jeff ran in last year's election on these shining themes: The workings of government should be open to all citizens, and it is they who should decide the shape of local laws and other government policies.
But Jeff looked the reporter square in the eye and said she could not have a copyof the bill. It was not yet in a form for the public to see because it had not been on the council agenda, he said.
When I heard this I was aghast. Maybe I'm dreaming, I thought, and this is South Africaor North Korea, not the land of freedom with government by the people and for the people.
Post haste, I called the council's lawyer H.Edward Andrews III. His job is to inform the council of its duties under the law. I figured Ed would agree that the council was a bit outof bounds.
"I'm not sure the draft bill is a public record, and I'll have to bring up the matter with the whole council for discussion. I'll try to get back to you at the end of the week," Ed told me.
I did not lose hope. Citizens and the press can turn to the state's public information law, which is designed to keep the light shining in the land of the free.
All you have to do is put down in writing your request for the document you want to see, cite the letter of thelaw and deliver it to whomever is the keeper of the document. In this case, it was Jeffrey Wilson.
I did this and attached courtesy copies of key parts of the law so Jeff's mind could be enlightened and his spirit for open government renewed.
To make a long story short, they said, "No draft bill for you."
To my mind, at that point Wilson and Andrews pulled back behind a shroud that really has no placein government.
One of the most amazing elements in this story is this: County government agencies frequently have public hearings and workshops on laws and policies in the works.
In the last couple ofweeks, the county executive has widely circulated drafts of her recycling proposal and sought ideas from the community on it. Just a few months ago Councilwoman Theresa Pierno held numerous public hearings on her draft bill to conserve trees.
I called Jeff and told him, it appeared to me he had broken a campaign promise to keep local government open and accessible to all citizens.
The question, I asked was: How are these other drafts different from the draft bill on the adult bookstores?
Jeff Wilson says the difference is this: Council members have a privilege to make whatever laws they have in the workspublic when they see fit.
Andrews, the council's lawyer, has apparently backed this up. He informed Wilson and Barker late this week that, in his opinion, draft laws are not public records. They are therefore under no obligation to grant the public access to the draft.
So, in Wilson's view, it really is Barker's call to decide when to make the draft public.
In my view he crossed that threshold when heshowed a version to Cassilly, who then had an opportunity neither you nor I have at this point -- to make suggestions on the bill.
When I pointed this out to Barker, he said this, "I don't want to keep anything from the public. They should be deeply involved in the process."
Good, I responded. Give us a copy of the draft.
"I want to get the document in order and show it to council members and then letthe people see it," he said.
"But at least one of the people has already seen it," I again noted. "Why not the rest of us?"
In my opinion the real answer to why you and I cannot see what's being drafted may lie in a few veiled facts.
First, this is not the council'sidea. It is a bill Joe Cassilly wants. Cassilly is a Republican running for the U.S. Senate on a conservative clean-up-the country theme.He has had police raid adult bookstores, looking for murderers, perverts and obscene material. He has raided local fraternal organizations and bars for illegal gambling.
He has a vested political interest in making sure this bill sails through. He can use its passage in his campaign.
The other part of the answer is this: The more press this bill receives, the more likely it is that people will question its Constitutional ramifications.
Of course Joe Cassilly can see the bill and offer ideas.
But not you or me.