Defying the Law

May 08, 1993

Baltimore County citizens have been treated to the spectacle of a public official empowered to apply state and local zoning laws proclaiming it would be "a horrible injustice" to obey the law himself.

William T. Hackett, chairman of the county Board of Appeals, sees nothing strange there. He says the Baltimore County solicitor told him he need not obey the state open meetings law, but they won't share the legal basis with the public. That's illegal too: the state law requires a public agency to vote in the open to close a meeting and to disclose in writing its reasons.

Mr. Hackett insists the only way the board can rule on a complicated zoning case is to discuss the evidence in private. This is just what the General Assembly prohibited when it strengthened the state open meetings law two years ago. Previously, agencies like zoning boards were permitted to hide behind closed doors while deciding issues that involved thousands, even millions of dollars in property rights. That procedure raised questions in citizens' minds whether they were getting a fair shake. Decisions made in the dark do not enhance public confidence.

When the legislature revamped the open meetings law, it retained the exemption for quasi-judicial agencies, but it ordered public bodies dealing with zoning matters to deliberate in the open. No ifs, ands or buts.

Unless county lawyers can pull some sort of legal rabbit out of their hat, it seems clear that the appeals board is blatantly violating the open meetings law. Public officials who can't come to a fair judgment on peoples' property rights without hiding in a dark corner don't deserve public confidence. Nor do they deserve continuance in office.

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