Open meetings law is abandoned

Balto. County Council votes unanimously to switch to state version

November 16, 1999|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Baltimore County has abandoned its 20-year-old open meetings law in favor of a state version of the regulations that some observers say allows more business to be conducted in secrecy.

By a unanimous vote last night with no debate, the Baltimore County Council agreed to switch to the state law, already used by 21 of Maryland's 23 counties.

The county version had a unique feature -- any meeting between the county executive and at least one top staffer was supposed to be advertised.

Under the state law, such meetings are exempted from scrutiny.

But in practice, few if any meetings between County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger and top aides were made public. That's because the county law contained too many broad exemptions, said County Attorney Virginia Barnhart.

"The existing law was meaningless," said County Council Chairman Kevin B. Kamenetz, a Pikesville-Randallstown Democrat. "I think this is just a fine-tuning process."

Representatives from Common Cause and other advocacy groups questioned the need to alter the county law, saying the state version had problems with enforcement.

Council members disagreed, and said the county executive should have the right to confer with his closest advisers without interference.

"From a management perspective, it maintains the privacy you need," said Councilman Joseph Bartenfelder, a Fullerton Democrat.

The county law had its roots in the scandals of the 1960s and 1970s, when two county executives -- Spiro T. Agnew and Dale Anderson -- were ensnared in bribery and influence peddling charges. But council members said the state regulations would provide as much protection against future corruption -- if laws alone can do so.

"Any law that you passed wouldn't have stopped the corruption," Bartenfelder said.

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