Open meetings law covers Pratt board State panel rejects library's argument that it's a private entity

April 17, 1997|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

A state panel, responding to a North Baltimore woman's complaint that the board of the Enoch Pratt Free Library was making some of its policy decisions in private, has ruled that the board is a public body subject to the state's open meetings law.

In an opinion issued yesterday, the state's Open Meetings Compliance Board rejected the Pratt's argument that the board and the library are private entities. It ruled that because the Pratt board was created by state statute in 1882, and that the intention of that statute was that it be a public institution, its meetings are subject to the Open Meetings Act.

The board acted on a complaint made in January by Jane Ball Shipley of North Baltimore who for years has been a critic of and an advocate for the Pratt library. In her complaint, Shipley said the board was having lunch before its Dec. 11 meeting, and she believed it was conducting official business.

A spokeswoman for the Pratt said yesterday that all its meetings are open to the public and that the lunch before the meeting is nothing more than an opportunity for board members to grab a sandwich and greet one another before the public session.

"We are in compliance with the board's opinion," said spokeswoman Averil J. Kadis. "We have, and have had for a very long time, open meetings of the board, and I expect we will continue to do that."

Kadis said the contention that the board was conducting business during its lunch was an incorrect assumption Shipley made.

After Shipley made the complaint, the Pratt board had an attorney from the law firm of Piper & Marbury write a response, which argued that the Pratt was a private body not subject to the open meetings law, "to go through the process just to see what would develop," Kadis said.

In her complaint, Shipley said she asked board chairwoman Virginia Adams, an attorney, whether the board was violating the open meetings law during the private gathering, and Adams replied, "Boards can discuss things among themselves as long as they take their actions in public."

Shipley said she asked Adams whether the board would abide by the open meetings law. "She told me that she had no intention of doing so," Shipley said in the complaint.

Shipley said yesterday she was particularly concerned that the board was discussing plans to replace an undetermined number of the city's 28 branches with four "megabranches" with parking.

Shipley said she and other members of The Coalition for the Pratt Library want to participate before the plan is written.

"They're presenting it to us," she said. "They're making us have to react to it instead of being part of it. Once the details are down, it's going to be very hard for the public to have any real input into the plan."

The opinion does not mean Pratt board members must stop eating together before meetings.

"There is nothing inherently wrong with a board having dinner together, even if it is a public board subject to the act," said Assistant Attorney General Jack Schwartz, a lawyer for the open meetings board. "They have to be careful though what it is they talk about, because sometimes if the subject of conversation at dinner is one that the act applies to, then they would be conducting business and might need to do so in open session."

Kadis said Piper & Marbury has not billed the library for its work. If it does, she said, no public funds would be used to pay.

Pub Date: 4/17/97

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.