The Annapolis city council did not violate the state's open meeting law when it met for seven minutes in closed session in June to discuss the city's anti-loitering law, the state Open Meetings Compliance Board said.
In a decision dated Friday and received by the parties yesterday, the board ruled in favor of the city, dismissing allegations made by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of a city resident that the council's closed-door session went beyond discussion of pending litigation, an exception under the law.
The ACLU, which is challenging in U.S. District Court the city's law allowing the establishment of drug-loitering-free zones, alleged in its complaint that the city's closed meeting June 6 included discussion of the merits of the legislative findings -- the rationale for approving the loitering law -- that were passed at the open meeting that followed.
The city contended that any discussion of the legislative findings at the closed meeting was incidental to the council's discussion with the city attorney regarding the lawsuit.
"The position we took from the beginning was that we didn't do anything wrong," said Karen Ruff, assistant city attorney. "When I received the complaint I didn't think it had any merit and that it was just done to try to better [the ACLU's] position in respect to the lawsuit in some way."
The ACLU's complaint was spurred by a statement by Mayor Dean L. Johnson recorded in minutes of that night's regular council meeting. Johnson said: "Mr. City Attorney ... since you brought it up and it was the subject of our closed meeting earlier this evening, I would entertain a motion to adopt the proposed statement of legislative findings."
In its opinion, the compliance board wrote, "If, indeed, the legislative findings were discussed solely in the context of the pending litigation, the discussion was permissible in closed session."
ACLU staff counsel Dwight H. Sullivan said he was disappointed with the board's decision and fears how it could be used to interpret the open meetings act by other public entities. "This sends a message to a legislative body in a future case that they can hold private sessions to discuss how to tailor legislation to respond to a legal challenge," he said.
Though the board confirmed the city's position, Johnson said the complaint was an opportunity to remind all city boards "that all of their business is to be conducted in the sunshine."
The U.S. District Court in Baltimore is set to hear oral arguments Feb. 16 in the loitering law case filed by the ACLU on behalf of the Anne Arundel County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and three city residents. The ACLU has said the law -- aimed at curbing open-air drug dealing and narrowly passed by the council in October 1999 -- is vague and unconstitutional, gives police too much power and will have a disproportionate effect on minorities.