Let the Sunshine In HOWARD COUNTY

January 26, 1993

During last week's discussion of the controversial Waverly Woods II development plan, a member of the Howard County Council (meeting as the county Zoning Board) suggested the doors be shut for a pow-wow on a legal point. Though a state law passed last July requires open meetings on government matters, such legal consultations are allowed.

But first the members should have voted to confer in private. They didn't. They huddled anyway. Only later did board chairman C. Vernon Gray realize he neglected to call the vote for the closed session.

So what did the members do next? They voted to close the private part of the meeting -- after it had already been completed! What this incident points out is that the council is not just inexperienced at open meetings, but also adverse to them.

Keep in mind this is the same council that asked the legislature not to approve the open meetings, or "sunshine," law. It's the council that once had a member who, during a late-night budget session, snapped at a reporter: "Why don't you go home? I am so tired of having to watch what I say."

More recently, Councilman Charles Feaga rapped open sessions for inhibiting discussion. The effect, he said, would be to slow the panel's work and ultimately shortchange the public interest.

There are legitimate reasons for closed meetings -- certain personnel matters, for example. Yet we believe the public interest is best served when the people have nearly total access to the doings of the representatives they elect and pay.

It's troubling that the council's attitude toward open sessions has been less than embracing. In contrast, neighboring Baltimore County has had liberal open meetings laws on its books for years.

There should also be concern that the Howard council could abuse the loophole permitting closed sessions for legal consultations. A legal opinion could be applied to almost any piece of county business, which poses the possibility that council members would use that excuse to shut the doors whenever they wish to escape observation.

Even the council's own attorney points out it's the group's decisions, not its comments in work sessions, that would come under scrutiny in a court appeal. In other words, lighten up, council members, and let the sunshine in.

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