Open meetings aid process, lawyer tells county workers

February 11, 1993|By Kerry O'Rourke | Kerry O'Rourke,Staff Writer

The state's open meetings law doesn't mean "government in a fishbowl," but it acknowledges that the process works better if the public has more access, a state lawyer told Carroll County employees yesterday.

Jack Schwartz, chief counsel for opinions and advice in the Maryland Attorney General's office, spoke to about 35 county employees during a seminar on the Open Meetings Act.

Revisions to the act that discourages officials from privately discussing public business took effect July 1.

The seminar at the County Office Building was coordinated by the county attorney's office and lasted about an hour.

The open meetings law applies to public bodies that meet with a quorum of their members to do public business, said Mr. Schwartz, who wrote a manual on the law, but it is not meant to apply to public officials who meet by chance or at social gatherings.

But officials in Carroll and other counties with three-member governing boards must be careful because when two members meet they are a quorum, Mr. Schwartz said.

If two Carroll commissioners are riding to a meeting together, they should not discuss county business in the car, he said. "It goes against human nature. I understand that," he said. "Care has to be taken."

Officials may close meetings for 14 specific reasons cited in the law, Mr. Schwartz said. These include preliminary discussions of personnel issues, legal advice and real estate transactions.

The law also allows executive functions of government to be closed. In Carroll, where the commissioners perform both executive and legislative duties, it sometimes can be hard to distinguish what is an executive function, Mr. Schwartz said.

Officials must give the reason they're closing the meeting, give notice of the meeting and keep minutes.

An easy test is to transport the issue to Baltimore County, Mr. Schwartz said. If it's something Executive Roger Hayden would do there, it probably is an executive function, he said.

A three-member Open Meetings Compliance Board, appointed by the governor, resolves disputes and educates public bodies about the law, Mr. Schwartz said. The board, chaired by Baltimore consultant and architect Walter Sondheim, issued five opinions last year and two this year. The board may impose a $100 civil penalty for willful violations of the law.

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