Attorney general backs suit to open appeal board debates

June 18, 1993|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,Staff Writer

Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. has joined private litigants in urging that the Baltimore County Board of Appeals be forced to conduct its deliberations on decisions in open session.

So far, the board has refused to end its closed-door policy, even though a new state open-meetings law took effect July 1, 1992. The county liquor board also holds its deliberations on decisions in private.

In a "friend of the court" filing in Baltimore County Circuit Court yesterday, Mr. Curran joined private groups opposing the expansion of Villa Julie College in Green Spring Valley that are seeking a court order to force the board to discuss its decision in public session.

In his brief, Mr. Curran noted that "zoning appeals boards, which traditionally were outside the scope of the [Open Meetings] act . . . were undoubtedly brought within the scope of the act" by the General Assembly's revision of the law.

The attorney general said the county's argument that the law is unconstitutional is "without merit."

If the county wants the board to be able to deliberate and vote in private, "it can urge the General Assembly to amend the act," he said. "But unless and until the General Assembly does so, the [Board of Appeals] must obey the law."

No date for a court hearing has been set, nor has the board issued a decision in the zoning case. The board hears appeals from all county administrative decisions, from zoning cases to taxicab permits. Liquor board decisions can be appealed directly to Circuit Court.

C. William Clark, a member of the appeals board, said yesterday that the county has yet to file further arguments to buttress its view that the open meetings law is in conflict with the Express Powers Act, which created boards of appeals throughout the state and which, he said, allows them to reach decisions in private.

William T. Hackett, board chairman, declined to comment yesterday. He has said the ability to deliberate in private is "a vital issue to the board" and has claimed that changing the board's methods now would "be a horrible injustice."

J. Carroll Holzer, attorney for the Valleys Planning Council, filed the original complaint alleging that the private sessions violated the open meetings law.

Benjamin Bronstein, attorney for Villa Julie, has argued in support of the board conducting its decision-making behind closed doors.

"Among the things the board has to deliberate on is the credibility of witnesses, and that would make for a very uncomfortable public situation," Mr. Bronstein said in May.

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