Bias panel secrecy sought Some on council fear plan for occasional private proceedings

'It bothers me'

July 08, 1998|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF

A plan to give the Annapolis Human Relations Commission the power to subpoena witnesses and conduct some operations in secret has some city council members worried that the citizens group will become too powerful.

Mayor Dean L. Johnson and Alderman Samuel Gilmer, a Ward 3 Democrat, are sponsoring a bill that would authorize the 15-member commission to "accept and investigate complaints relating to discrimination in areas of public accommodations, employment and housing" and to refer unresolved complaints to the appropriate authorities.

The bill also would allow the commission to "conduct any conciliation and mediation proceedings in confidence and without publicity" and to refuse to disclose the identities of the parties involved.

Johnson said he only wants to clarify certain powers the commission already has to launch investigations into discrimination complaints.

But the secrecy clause worries Alderman Louise Hammond, a Ward 1 Democrat and chairwoman of the council's rules and city government committee, which will study the bill today.

"It bothers me that a decision can be made, and that decision is private," she said. "Also, if someone is accusing me of something, by golly, I want to know who said it. I don't like all this secrecy."

The commission wouldn't operate entirely in secret, Johnson said. Under the bill, the commission also would arrange public hearings, serve as a mediator between parties and make recommendations and propose legislation to the council.

"With the exception of subpoena power -- that's new -- the general feeling is that they already had those powers to investigate," Johnson said. "Also, mediation in a public forum can't happen. The bottom line in getting mediation going is that all parties will talk openly and freely. If they have to carry that on publicly, then it would be meaningless."

He suggested the bill could be reworded to be sure the commission does not conduct all business outside of the public eye.

But Hammond said the notion of such power for "a group of citizens who don't have to meet any type of criteria such as a legal background," worries him.

Alderman Herb McMillan said he believes the measure would create more work for the city attorney because of broader legal questions that the commission might deal with.

"I do have some questions and concerns, but I also think the bill has a lot of merit," said the Ward 5 Republican, who also sits on the rules committee. "We may want to massage it a little to make sure it complies with state law."

McMillan said he is reluctant "to give a lot of power to commissions," but that he believes "we can work on this and come up with a good ordinance in the end."

Common Cause/Maryland, a governmental watchdog group, said it is not so unusual for such quasi-judicial bodies to have such authority. In fact, the state's human relations commission has similar powers of investigation, subpoena and secrecy.

"That is a typical authority that a serious human relations commission would have," said Kathleen S. Skullney, executive director of Common Cause. "It makes sense. If they're going to oversee these kind of cases and are charged with enforcing these kind of statutes, they have to have the necessary legal authority to effectively do it."

Pub Date: 7/08/98

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