Defending the Indefensible

October 28, 1993

Baltimore County's taxpayers should be outraged at the irresponsible waste of their money by the county law office. Its lawyers defended in court the totally indefensible refusal of the Board of Appeals to obey state law. This law requires zoning appeals boards to discuss and vote on cases in public. The language is simple and direct.

Members of the appeals board flouted the law because it made them uncomfortable. One explained he could not be "frank and candid" in front of an audience. Another said he feared being misquoted. Another worried that the board's deliberations, rather than the law or evidence, "would become the subject of public debate." We can't have any of that in a democracy, now can we?

It's bad enough that seasoned officials would be so fearful of letting the public see how they arrived at decisions affecting citizens' homes and livelihoods that they would defy a state law. What is truly outrageous is that the county attorney would try to justify it in court.

The requirement that zoning boards deliberate in public (they have always heard testimony that way) was part of a revision of the state open meetings law enacted in 1991. The arguments made by the appeals board members were heard and rejected by the legislature, except for a purported free-speech issue which the judge brushed aside disdainfully.

In a manual widely distributed to public officials, the attorney general's office wrote: "The General Assembly unquestionably meant to legislate this result. Not only is the statutory language unambiguous, but the General Assembly also rejected amendments that would have permitted zoning board deliberations to be nonpublic."

So why was this matter in court? Contesting a court case costs money. Judge Barbara Kerr Howe ordered that the citizens who contested the board's hiding behind closed doors be reimbursed for legal expenses. And who does the reimbursing? Not the law-defying public official or county attorney. The taxpayer does.

Appropriately, this first court test of the open meetings revisions was brought by private citizens. The law requiring government to operate in full view benefits the public at large, not just journalists. The new board that advises officials on open meeting requirements received 20 complaints in its first year. Seventeen came from private citizens, two from local officials and only one from a journalist. Public business is the public's business.

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