Court ruling puts focus on meetings law Library branch closing raises questions about city boards' secrecy

Quasi-public agencies

Judge backs deciding case by case

mayor favors closed sessions

September 21, 1997|By Robert Guy Matthews | Robert Guy Matthews,SUN STAFF

The question of whether the city's influential quasi-public agencies can continue to decide in secret how to spend millions of taxpayer dollars has been raised anew after a Baltimore judge ruled last week that the Pratt library must conduct more of its business in public.

The ruling by Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan, administrative judge of the Baltimore Circuit Court, allowed the Pratt administration to close the St. Paul Street library branch over the objections of neighborhood groups that said they felt they were left out of the process.

But he also ruled that the Enoch Pratt Free Library was not a private institution, as Pratt officials claimed, and that the library was subject to state open meetings laws. Therefore, library board meetings would have to be open, not as a public courtesy but by law.

Whether other quasi-public agencies such as the Baltimore Development Corp., the Community Development Financing Corp., Empower Baltimore Management Corp. and the city convention association are subject to more public scrutiny must be decided case by case, Kaplan said.

"You have to look at all the factors to determine whether a public body would be open to the general public," said Kaplan.

Generally, the BDC, the CDFC and the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association close board meetings to the public. Empower Baltimore opens its meetings to the public.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said this week that he would prefer quasi-public agencies continue to be exempt from open meetings laws, contending they could operate more efficiently that way. But he acknowledged that they could function even if they were required to open their meetings.

Most of these agencies were set up during the last 10 years. The ostensible reason for setting them up as private entities receiving public funding was to allow them to bypass the city's bureaucratic process and thereby act more quickly.

Public cynicism

But this structure has also allowed them to conduct much of their business outside the public eye. Critics say that meeting behind closed doors undermines public confidence and heightens public cynicism. Periodically, those agencies have been asked to open their meetings by the media, residents or other public officials, but they have consistently declined.

"We are working to broaden the definition of a public body," said Deborah Povich, executive director of Common Cause/Maryland, a public-interest watchdog group.

Povich said the public should have more access to quasi-public agencies that advise public officials. Some of the quasi-public agencies have significant influence over decisions that will shape the city for years to come.

HTC In one example, BDC, which acts as the economic development arm of the city, recommended to Schmoke that the city build a $137.6 million Wyndham Hotel at Inner Harbor East.

The majority of quasi-public agencies operate with mostly public funding. But that alone has not proved to be a strong enough reason to open them to public scrutiny.

For example, in December, the Open Meetings Compliance Board, formed in 1991 to give opinions on the subject, determined that the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association could continue to close its board meetings. The compliance board reasoned that although the mayor appoints the board's chair, the duty of the board is to a private corporation, not to the city.

Determining factors

Besides the question of whether the organization serves the general public, there is the factor of whether the organization was created by an act of law.

For instance, the City Council or the Board of Estimates, which approves the spending of city dollars, are both open to the public because they were created by an act of law and serve the general public.

But most instances aren't so clearly defined. And, in general, some quasi-public city agencies would prefer not to open their meetings to the public. To open them, someone would have to petition a court to rule that the agency was subject to the Open Meetings Act.

In the Pratt case, Kaplan ruled that the board meetings must be open as a matter of law, because the board serves the general public and operates mostly with public funds. The city gives the Pratt about $17 million a year.

But in a separate case this year, Kaplan ruled that the private Maryland School for the Blind could avoid public scrutiny at its board meetings. Though the school receives most of its budget from public funds, it is not subject to the Open Meetings Act in part because it doesn't serve the general public.

Permissible closed meetings

The Open Meetings Act allows closed-door sessions, most notably for discussions of personnel issues. In those cases, the board must tell the public why it is closing the meeting and must discuss only topics it is permitted to discuss in private.

Among some of the city's quasi-public agencies, officials worry they might lose a court challenge and be forced to open their meetings, Schmoke said.

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