Closed Doors, Greater Oversight?

March 03, 1994

Does anyone else see the irony in the fact that the Westminster City Council, at the request of Mayor W. Benjamin Brown, met behind closed doors to discuss the need for greater public oversight of the Carroll County Narcotics Task Force? The political sensitivity of the issue is not one of the criteria under state law that allows elected officials to have secret talks. The only appropriate place to vigorously debate the creation of an oversight committee for the drug task force is the public arena.

The mayor and council may have discussed personnel and land acquisition matters during their closed meeting Monday, which is allowed under the law. To expand the agenda to include the oversight committee, though, was to break the spirit, if not the letter, of the open meetings law. Whether this particular police organization has sufficient checks on its power, in fact, is precisely the type of subject state lawmakers envisioned would require a healthy public airing when they revised the Open Meetings Act last year.

We certainly share the concern of some Westminster officials that the county's drug task force has been able to operate without effective oversight. The task force's current advisory board members -- the commander of the Westminster barracks of the state police, the county sheriff, the state's attorney and the Westminster police chief -- are not disinterested parties to task force operations. Each of those organizations contributes personnel and equipment to the task force and would naturally be inclined to evaluate its actions in the most favorable light.

Until last year, the task force's advisory board resisted oversight of its finances. Even though it was confiscating property in the name of Carroll's citizens, it never disclosed to them what happened to the money it obtained. In addition, the task force has developed a number of abusive forfeiture practices, most notably the use of buybacks to dismiss or reduce criminal charges.

A need surely exists for elected officials to oversee the task force, although Mr. Brown is on the wrong track to think this is a job for city officials. Even though Westminster police are on the task force, it is, in effect, a county law enforcement agency. The county commissioners should be responsible for oversight. This is a debate worth conducting, but not behind closed doors.

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