Government by water cooler CARROLL COUNTY

December 08, 1992

If you are on the third floor of the Carroll County government building and see the three commissioners conversing around the water cooler, it might be wise to sidle up to them and listen.

They might be making important public policy that the rest of the public may never hear.

The commissioners are amassing a very poor record of conducting the public's business in public.

Their recent decision not to support the legalization of video poker machines in the county's 10 fraternal lodges was made at the back door of the county building as they were leaving for the day. It was the right decision, made in the wrong way.

The commissioners decided to double the fees for restaurants on the afternoon of Nov. 24 without any notice to the public or the county's restaurant operators. The meeting on the fees was not on the publicly distributed agenda. Even worse, the decision was not reflected in the day's minutes. The public learned of the decision when restaurants received their 1993 license renewal applications, which reflected the new, higher fees.

Last week, the commissioners met behind closed doors again to discuss whether the county's recently enacted forest conservation ordinance should apply to a proposed subdivision in Hampstead being developed by Martin K.P. Hill, a builder who had tried to scuttle the tree measure. County officials responsible for implementing the law were not allowed to attend. Hampstead town officials, who have a direct interest in the matter, were not invited either.

These are but a few examples in which the commissioners cavalierly consider important public issues beyond public view. Maryland law is very clear: Government at all levels should conduct decision-making in an open and public manner. There are exceptions where governments can close meetings -- personnel matters, for instance -- but they must fit a narrow set of conditions.

Indeed, government decision-making might be quicker and more efficient if conducted behind closed doors. But we live in a democracy where open decision-making ensures accountability.

Carroll's commissioners have been too fast to close meetings, to give the public inadequate notice of decisions they are considering and to dismiss complaints about their secretive tendencies. By not inviting the public, they are inviting trouble.

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