Council's closed meeting draws ACLU complaint

September 21, 2000|By Amanda J. Crawford | Amanda J. Crawford,SUN STAFF

The Annapolis city council might have violated state law when members discussed the city's anti-loitering law in a closed session in June, according to a complaint filed yesterday by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland.

The ACLU, which is challenging in U.S. District Court the law allowing the establishment of drug-loitering-free zones, filed the complaint with the Maryland Open Meetings Law Compliance Board on behalf of a city resident after reviewing a transcript of the council's June 6 regular meeting, an ACLU official said.

The main point of contention is whether a discussion of legislative findings - the city's rationale for adopting the anti-loitering measure that was later adopted at the council's open meeting - violated the law, which allows closed meetings on pending litigation.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in some editions Thursday about an allegation that the Annapolis city council had violated the state's open meeting law incorrectly quoted Alderman Sheila M. Tolliver as saying that members attending a closed meeting "got advice on the council's perception of the lawsuit."
In fact, she was referring to the "counsel's perception" of the pending case.
The Sun regrets the error.

Alderman Herbert H. McMillan, the Ward 5 Republican who sponsored the anti-loitering measure, called the ACLU's open-meeting complaint "groundless."

"Bullying small cities into submission with expensive and unfounded nuisance litigation is a common ACLU tactic," McMillan said. "They are trying to keep our staff from focusing on the case."

State law prohibits public bodies from meeting privately except in specific circumstances, including the discussion of pending litigation, said Jack Schwartz, assistant attorney general and counsel to the open-meetings board.

The ACLU contends that the topic of the closed meeting went beyond the discussion of the litigation. "Legislative findings is clearly not part of the litigation," said Dwight Sullivan, ACLU of Maryland's chief counsel.

The findings were added to the law's legislative record in an attempt to strengthen the city's defense against the lawsuit filed in February by the ACLU on behalf of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and three Annapolis residents.

Two council members present at the closed meeting said that though the legislative findings were part of the closed discussion, they believe that was permissible under the state law.

"We got advice on the counsel's perception of the lawsuit that was pending and what course of action we would consider," said Alderman Sheila M. Tolliver, a Ward 2 Democrat. "We did not develop any proposal in there or vote on any proposal."

The city's anti-loitering law, which was narrowly passed by the council in October, is aimed at curbing open-air drug dealing and allows residents in an area where more than three drug-related arrests have been made in a 24-month period to seek to have the area designated a "drug-loitering-free zone."

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