Cyber-loophole in open meetings law E-mail in government: Misuse of computer messages violates spirit of public access.

March 29, 1996

ELECTRONIC MAIL, better known as e-mail, is sending the General Assembly a message: Maryland's Open Meetings law should be updated to reflect the capabilities of this rapidly expanding means of private communication.

Specifically, public bodies required to hold open meetings to discuss policy matters should not be permitted to use this

computer-message medium to avoid that legal obligation.

Secret meetings and telephone round-robins are barred in these cases. E-mail should be added to the list, as more and more people learn to communicate via computer, whether over the Internet or through on-line services.

Baltimore County's community college board members recently turned back the personal computers they had acquired to discuss policy matters outside public view. The $25,000 purchase was seen as a way to improve communications between the eight trustees, but the county's attorney ruled that their private discussions and action over the computer network would violate the Open Meetings law.

But Carroll County's attorney ruled this month that electronic mail discussion between members of the county planning commission did not violate the state law, even though specific action items for the body were addressed. The issue arose on complaint of a lawyer for a developer whose subdivision was before the commission for approval.

Surprisingly, the state Open Meeting Compliance Board has not yet received a charge of violation regarding use of e-mail. But the Carroll attorney, Charles O. Fisher Sr., is considering that action.

The Maryland attorney general's office has not weighed in with an opinion that would cover the numerous public bodies whose members could be affected. There is a question whether the law needs to be changed to meet technological changes, or whether existing statutes can be adapted to these changes, it advises.

We think the law should be amended to specify that it covers electronic exchanges and forums.

There are ample exceptions to the open meetings rules, as we have previously noted. This is a legal loophole that needs to be closed, so that cyber-meetings of official bodies are not.

Pub Date: 3/29/96

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