Council closes meeting

March 02, 1994|By Darren M. Allen and Donna E. Boller | Darren M. Allen and Donna E. Boller,Sun Staff Writers

The Westminster City Council may have violated Maryland's open meetings law Monday night by barring the public from a discussion of Mayor W. Benjamin Brown's proposal to create an oversight committee for the Carroll County Narcotics Task Force.

Mr. Brown is proposing a policy review board, primarily of elected officials, that would oversee task force policy. He said yesterday that he got interested because of widespread criticism of the task force by local attorneys, judges and politicians.

Sources said the council met in closed session for about three hours and discussed the mayor's proposal after Monday night's public meeting. Council members had voted 4-0 during the public meeting to close its session for discussions of "personnel and land acquisition."

City Attorney John B. Walsh Jr. declined yesterday to say how the mayor's idea could be interpreted as a personnel matter.

"You're asking me to talk about what they did last night. I'm not going to do that," he said.

Mr. Walsh interpreted the Maryland open meetings law section that says a meeting may be closed to discuss ". . . any other personnel matter that affects one or more specific individuals" to mean that the council can bar the public from discussions about possible new positions.

If the council wanted to discuss whether to create a city manager's position, for example, "is this person going to exercise authority over city employees? That to me is clearly a personnel matter," Mr. Walsh said.

Jack Schwartz, an assistant attorney general and counsel to Maryland's Open Meetings Act Compliance Board, declined to comment specifically yesterday on the closed Westminster meeting. He said he didn't have the facts and didn't want to interfere in case someone files a complaint with the compliance board about the meeting.

Mr. Schwartz said the attorney general's office generally interprets the law to allow closed meetings for personnel discussions, "only when specific individuals are being discussed and not applicable to abstract discussions."

Mayor Brown confirmed yesterday that his review board idea was discussed in the closed session. But, he said, a consensus was not reached.

In a statement issued late yesterday, the mayor said, "Discussions to date have not resulted in the needed consensus among the Mayor and City Council to go forward with the establishment of a Policy Review Board for the Narcotics Task Force."

But he said he has been talking up the review board idea privately among elected officials for about three months, and has found broad support for the task force's drug enforcement efforts.

"At the same time," the mayor said in his statement, "there is, among a significant portion of the elected leadership, the concern that all practical steps be taken to free the members of the Narcotics Task Force from the cloud of criticism . . ."

He suggested composing the review board of elected representatives from the Westminster and county governments, the sheriff and a retired judge or lawyer.

The existing task force advisory board -- which the mayor's proposal would not replace -- includes the state's attorney, the city police chief, sheriff and a state police representative. The task force includes two sheriff's deputies, three state troopers, a Westminster police officer and Assistant State's Attorney Barton Walker III, the task force coordinator.

Mr. Brown's idea produced divided opinions among local political leaders.

Council President Kenneth A. Yowan declined to confirm that the oversight proposal was discussed Monday night. But he said he opposes the mayor's idea.

Mr. Yowan said city Police Chief Sam R. Leppo, who serves on the task force's advisory board, has kept the council apprised of the task force's activities.

"I have the utmost confidence in [Chief Leppo] and his integrity," Mr. Yowan said. He said he "wouldn't want any elected official outside of law enforcement officials to be involved in running the drug task force. I think that would be very dangerous."

Sheriff John Brown also opposed the idea. "No, no, no way," the sheriff said yesterday. "It's like having a registered nurse trying to look at the cancer patient and questioning the diagnosis of the surgeon."

State's Attorney Thomas E. Hickman said the mayor had not discussed the oversight committee idea with him, but he said some Westminster council members and two of the county commissioners have offered him support for the task force.

"The more you keep politics out of law enforcement, the better," Mr. Hickman said. "They should be kept separate from one another."

Chief Leppo refused to comment on the mayor's proposal.

The proposal found favor with all three county commissioners.

Commissioner Elmer C. Lippy acknowledged that elected officials might try to use the task force to embarrass political opponents.

"But I'd hope the overall composition of the task force would be such that that wouldn't happen," he said.

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