Officials accused of violations Planning panel denies breaking open-meetings law

April 30, 1996|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,SUN STAFF

The chairman of Carroll's planning commission says he can't understand the "intentions and goals" behind Del. Joseph M. Getty's charges that the panel has twice violated the state's open-meetings law.

Mr. Getty has asked the state's Open Meetings Compliance Board to investigate whether the commission changed its zoning policy without holding a public hearing and whether members communicated illegally by e-mail.

Planning commission Chairman David T. Duree, who has denied the charges, said yesterday that he wonders why Mr. Getty did not bring his problems to the commission directly.

"I am certain the commission would have listened to his concerns. If his goal was to point out problems in the process, it would have been more productive if he had asked to us to address those problems. If his aim was to change policy we would have been very happy to listen."

Mr. Getty said he spoke with the county attorney in January and with some commission members privately about a zoning policy change that made subdivisions 3 acres or smaller subject to the county's adequate-facilities law.

The change came about when the panel's legal adviser told the commission that the law applied to minor subdivisions, Mr. Duree said.

That information was shared in a public meeting but never voted on, said commission member Joseph H. Mettle. "When our attorney told us it was the law, we accepted it," he said.

That was a mistake, Mr. Getty said. "Their interpretation is that for 18 years, Carroll County was violating the law. I don't believe that. If challenged by a judge, the judge would look not just at the plain language, but the legislative intent and practice."

Mr. Getty conceded that the commission might not have violated the letter of the open-meetings law in changing the policy, but he said members violated the spirit of the law.

"When an 18-year established policy is in writing in the subdivision regulations, the citizens of Carroll County deserve public debate before the full planning commission before the policy is changed," he said.

Secrecy wasn't intended

Mr. Duree said there was no secrecy intended when the commission changed its zoning policy.

"In my opinion, the planning commission has been exemplary" in the public conduct of its business, he said. "We have sought public participation at every opportunity. The policy of openness we have had in the past will continue. We are very proud of it."

Mr. Mettle agreed, saying, "It is a mistake not to involve the people. We [do] everything in our power to get people involved."

County Attorney George A. Lahey defended the commission last week against Mr. Getty's earlier charge that members violated the open meetings law by using e-mail to discuss zoning issues.

'No meeting occurred'

In a letter to Jack Schwartz, chief counsel for opinions and advice in the state attorney general's office, Mr. Lahey argued that the e-mail messages did not violate the law, since "no meeting occurred."

The messages were sequential rather than in a "chat room setting" used for simultaneous group discussions on the World Wide Web. The messages were more like an exchange of letters, which does not constitute a meeting under the open-meetings law, and less like a conference telephone call, which does, Mr. Lahey said.

"I am confident that the planning commission members who communicate by e-mail have a genuine, conscientious desire to comply with the Open Meetings Act and will will appreciate any advice you offer," Mr. Lahey said.

Legal process

The commission has until mid-May to respond to Mr. Getty's latest charge. The Open Meetings Compliance Board will then have 30 days to make a finding.

If the board finds that the planning commission erred in either instance, it will urge compliance with the law, Mr. Schwartz said.

Although the board has no enforcement power, "no public body likes to be on the receiving end of an adverse opinion," he said. "It has a deterrent effect. It is a problem when going for re-election [or reappointment] to be seen as a fan of secrets."

The compliance board has received "several dozen" complaints since it was created in 1992 and and has ruled in favor of the complainants in about half of the cases, Mr. Schwartz said.

Pub Date: 4/30/96

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