Union Bridge is a picturesque Carroll County town of 966 residents. Much of its history was tied to the Western Maryland Railroad, which is remembered in a museum housed in a 1902 Victorian structure on North Main Street.
This quiet hamlet is unexpectedly in the news because the Maryland attorney general's office has ruled that the town council's recent $7,857 purchase of Christmas lights was not in compliance with state law.
Is the state acting as an early Ebenezer Scrooge?
Not at all. Union Bridge can buy all the Christmas lights it wants but town council meetings must be announced to the public or the media in advance. The Oct. 10 meeting, where the decision was made to purchase new decorations to hang from Main Street poles, was not.
"This came up really on the spur of the moment," Town Clerk Kathleen D. Kreiner said of that meeting. "The money was already allocated but we had to have the council's approval on the specific contract." Nevertheless, approval of contracts is an activity covered by the state open meetings law, according to the attorney general's office, and the meeting should have been announced in advance.
This Union Bridge squabble serves as a timely reminder that Maryland's weak and much-abused open meetings law is about to become much tougher. Although the new law does not go into effect until next July 1, Gov. William Donald Schaefer appointed a three-member compliance board in August so it can begin to work with jurisdictions on how to comply with the new requirements.
After action is taken in a public meeting, Union Bridge will have its Christmas lights. And that's the point: open meetings do not complicate government business when they are conducted as a matter of course. They only make it certain that light shines to even the darkest corners of decision making. Taxpayers are the beneficiaries because they will know what their government and elected officials are doing.