Balto. Co. to vote on meeting code

Language of state law on public access is considered stronger

November 15, 1999|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Baltimore County is considering replacing its unique open meetings law with a state version of the statute that critics fear would allow the county executive to conduct too much business behind closed doors.

County officials want to substitute their code, which dates from 1978, with the Maryland law regulating government meetings, saying the state language is clearer and more likely to withstand legal challenges. The County Council is expected to vote tonight on the change, as part of a once-a-decade review of local laws.

The package includes stronger financial disclosure and lobbying rules. But a key distinction between the law's two versions worries advocates of open government.

The Baltimore County code, drafted in 1978, states that any meeting between two or more executive-level employees -- for example, between the county executive and his or her budget director -- should be open to the public. State law specifically exempts such get-togethers from scrutiny.

"This has the potential of denying citizens an opportunity to speak in open forum on matters that affect the general public," said Victoria Woodward, an attorney with Thomas & Libowitz, who specializes in administrative law issues.

But, the county's law contains so many loopholes that practically any meeting between the county executive and a staff member could be considered off-limits, said county attorney Virginia Barnhart.

"You could drive a truck through some of the exemptions," she said. "Most executive meetings have been closed anyway."

Though County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger communicates frequently with other county officials, he doesn't spend his days huddling in important meetings that the public doesn't know about, she said.

"It's a technology world," Barnhart said. "It's a telephone world. It's an e-mail world."

Ruppersberger said, through a spokeswoman, that he considers the state law "stronger and better crafted." "Overall, we expect there to be very little change in the level of access" to the executive, said spokeswoman Elise Armacost.

Twenty-one of Maryland's 23 counties have adopted the state version, but Baltimore County has held out. The county's independence has a history, dating to the scandals of the 1960s and 1970s, which saw a former and a sitting county executive -- Spiro T. Agnew and Dale Anderson -- go to jail for accepting bribes.

In a house-cleaning move, county leaders passed a series of tough good-government laws. But, while most of Maryland's counties rely on the state law, that doesn't make it particularly good, according to Kathleen S. Skullney, executive director of Common Cause/Maryland.

"There is absolutely no serious enforcement mechanism at the state level," Skullney said. "There are absolutely no consequences for having violated the law."

Although the State Open Meetings Law Compliance Board hears complaints of violations and can level $150 civil penalties, Skullney called the board slow and ineffectual.

But Barnhart said sending complaints to the state board is better than the enforcement tool under county law: filing a complaint in Circuit Court.

"It is a formidable process for most laypersons," Barnhart said. County Council Chairman Kevin B. Kamenetz, a Pikesville-Randallstown Democrat, said he did not realize the state law exempted executive-level meetings from access, despite a council workshop meeting last week that included the measure.

"It is certainly a worthwhile point that should be discussed," he said.

But practicality dictates that the county executive should be allowed to meet in private, as long as his or her decisions are subject to oversight by the legislative branch, Kamenetz said.

The package of code changes that includes the meetings law also alters county ethics rules.

The county is considering strengthing its definition of "doing business with the county" for the purposes of financial disclosures and lobbying activity, and prohibiting zoning commissioners from discussing cases under their consideration.

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