Liquor board should send a message CARROLL COUNTY

November 16, 1993

After conducting part of its last meeting behind closed doors, the Carroll County liquor board should return to its long-standing practice of discussing liquor license penalties in public. The board's recent closed deliberations may have complied with the letter of Maryland's Open Meeting Act, but they did not honor the spirit of the law, which exhorts government bodies to conduct the public's business in public.

Since the board was discussing whether to punish two establishments for selling liquor to minors, it was acting in a quasi-judicial capacity. Under former chairman Earle H. Brewer, the board used to openly discuss violations and punishments. However, the board's new chairman, Russell Mayer, with the concurrence of members John P. Buchheister and Romeo Valianti, jumped at the chance to close such discussions after County Attorney Charles W. "Chuck" Thompson Jr. advised the board it was permissible.

When the General Assembly passed the Open Meetings Act, Maryland's lawmakers recognized that public decision-making "increases the faith of the public in government." In the case of the liquor board, the public might learn more about the board's intentions from the process of its decision-making than from the final decision alone.

Moreover, the selling of liquor to minors is a serious problem in this county. Had punishment for the bar and the liquor store that were accused of selling to teen-agers been discussed publicly, the board might have better conveyed the message to all county stores and bars that future violators will be dealt with harshly.

Members of government bodies sometimes mistakenly discount the fact that the process of making a decision can telegraph volumes of information.

When the public can learn the factors that go into a decision -- whether about land-use plans or penalties for a liquor license violation -- they come away with a better understanding of their government. Open decision-making reduces ambiguity and increases credibility.

Before huddling behind closed doors becomes a habit, the new liquor board members should revert to the board's former practice of conducting their entire meeting in public. After a few sessions, they will discover that they won't get burned by conducting their business in the sunshine.

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