Agnew-Anderson vestige

Baltimore County: Council reverts to state open meetings law

its own statute proved unworkable.

November 18, 1999

BALTIMORE County's government used to be so open that then-County Executive Theodore G. Venetoulis once listed an after-work drink with a constituent on his daily schedule.

Rocked by the scandals of Spiro T. Agnew and Dale Anderson in the 1960s and 1970s, county politicians threw open the County Office Building to deter future officials from taking money in paper bags and to restore trust.

For the past two decades, Baltimore County has operated with a public meetings law more stringent than almost any other jurisdiction in Maryland. No newspaper is going to have a problem with a powerful open meetings law, but the county's proved unworkable in the absurd. Any meeting between the county executive and one or more top county official was advertised to the public.

Ironically, the law would not have stopped corruption in Agnew's day because consultants, developers and mortgage bankers who paid the bribes weren't covered by it, only public officials.

Initially, county executives scrupulously followed the dictates of the open meetings law. Recalls former councilman Douglas Riley: "I remember [Sun reporter] Larry Carson walked into one of our dinner meetings and, all of a sudden, we began talking about our families." But eventually, county administrations found ways around the law.

Roger B. Hayden held fewer cabinet meetings. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger could e-mail his way around the law.

Acknowledging that current practice violates the law's spirit, the County Council approved Monday -- without dissent or debate -- to replace it with a version of the state open meetings law.

Just as the role of the federal special prosecutor, another law created in the wake of scandal, this year lost its allure, county lawmakers in Towson questioned the continued effectiveness of their special open meetings law. The purpose of an open meetings law isn't to stifle reasonable communication inside government, but to ensure that the public's business is done with its knowledge and opportunity for input.

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