Ecker Uses Closed Meeting To Discuss Budget Cuts

October 30, 1991|By Donna E. Boller | Donna E. Boller,Staff writer

A private meeting of County Executive Charles I. Ecker, the school board and Superintendent Michael E. Hickey to discuss budget cuts lastweek did not follow the requirements of the state's open meetings law.

Ecker reported after the closed meeting that board members agreed to cut $3 million from the county share of the current school budget to help reduce an anticipated $9.5 million county deficit.

Board Chairman Deborah D. Kendig said she and her four colleaguesdiscussed budget cuts at the Friday morning meeting with Ecker, but neither a formal or a straw vote was taken.

State law requires public bodies such as school boards to meet in open session when they are carrying out advisory, legislative or quasi-legislative functions. A meeting is defined in the state statutes as a quorum of a public body meeting to consider or transact public business.

The board was scheduled to meet publicly last night to discuss how and where to cut$3 million from a school budget that just 2 1/2 weeks ago lost nearly $1 million in reductions of state government contributions toward teachers retirement and Social Security funds.

Ecker said the Friday session in his office "was my meeting, and I closed it." The executive said he is not covered by the state open meetings law. He added that school board members could have refused to attend if they felt the meeting should be open to the public.

Board Chairman Deborah D. Kendig said yesterday that she had not known the meeting with Ecker was a closed session. "I expected the press to be there, and I was surprised when they weren't," she said.

Ecker confirmed that he had not told Kendig the meeting was private. Asked how board members wouldknow to ques

tion whether they could legally attend if they didn't know the meeting was closed to the public, he replied, "I don't know how they would know."

The executive said he had consulted the county solicitor earlier about his legal rights to conduct closed meetings but did not consult staff attorneys specifically about Friday's meeting.

Assistant Solicitor Thomas Carbo explained that individualcounty officials do not fall under the state's open meetings law, but that when they meet with public bodies, the law sets rules for whenthe public body must open its meetings.

"Whether the Board of Education was acting as a public body at that time is something their attorneys would have to answer," Carbo said.

Attorney Michael S. Molinaro from the school board's law firm, Reese & Carney, said he couldnot answer questions about whether the Friday meeting should have been open to the public because he was unaware the meeting had occurred.

"My clients have not consulted me about this," he said.

Eckersaid he wanted the meeting closed so he could discuss budget issues with the board. He said the issues could not be discussed in public because "I wanted to share some things of a confidential nature, and Ididn't want the press there."

Ecker declined to say what the "things of a confidential nature" were.

Cutting $3 million from the county share of the school budget will bring county support this yeardown to $135.5 million, about $5 million less than the county government's contribution to the 1990-1991 school budget.

Ecker had to ask county agencies and the school system to take further budget cuts after the General Assembly cut state aid to Howard County by $4.1 million in mid-October.

In addition, the county has had to borrow $3 million from the current budget to cover red ink for the fiscal year that ended June 30 and has received less than expected from its share ofthe state income tax.

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