Closed meetings lead to meeting

Md. oversight panel, officials review rules

March 15, 2001|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

The state's Open Meetings Law Compliance Board met informally yesterday with the Carroll commissioners to discuss possible violations of the law enacted to keep the public informed.

The 90-minute session stemmed from a complaint filed by Neil Ridgely, a Finksburg resident and former county employee. He noted 52 recent meetings "closed for no specific topic, for illegitimate topics or held with undisclosed individuals."

His complaint was one of the most comprehensive since the open meetings board was authorized 10 years ago.

Walter Sondheim Jr., chairman of the three-member open meetings board, set a conciliatory tone and reiterated the difficulties inherent in the commissioners' roles as legislative and executive leaders.

"We recognize the problems you have," Sondheim said during the meeting at the County Office Building in Westminster. "We don't want anyone to think he or she is going to jail."

The open meetings board has no such power. The board can issue an opinion stating whether the law was violated. A violation carries no fines or other repercussions. The commissioners can expect the opinion in about 30 days.

Ridgely's complaint involved meetings closed to the public for executive functions during the past year.

"I looked at agendas and I could not legitimately discern the reasons for closing the meetings," Ridgely told the open meetings board. "There were several items where it was hard to rationalize why they were keeping the public out."

The law allows officials to close meetings for specific reasons, such as personnel issues, legal advice or land acquisition.

Even in executive session, officials must discuss and act openly when enacting an ordinance or when approving, disapproving or amending contracts, budgets or zoning.

"Government needs to be as open as possible," Ridgely said. "It is beneficial to citizens, and you could benefit from public comment."

Sondheim urged the commissioners to consistently ask themselves and their staff if a good reason exists for closing a meeting. Use of executive privilege should not be a refuge, he said.

"The reason cannot be that there is something you don't want to say in public," Sondheim said. "A great deal of the problems that have arisen could be avoided if you started with the assumption that the burden is on closing. Stick to the purpose of the law and let the public know what you are doing."

The complaint has made Carroll officials more aware and more diligent to keep the public informed, the commissioners said.

"We have all learned something," said Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge. "We ask ourselves quite often should we close or should we get the press in."

Commissioner Donald I. Dell stressed his confidence in the county staff. "Our staff tells us frequently that a meeting should be open."

He said having the press at meetings has made him "gun-shy. They trip you up, asking the same questions four different ways until you answer."

The volume of the complaint - 52 alleged violations - generated hours of work for the county's legal staff who reviewed and responded to each instance. Ridgely said he could not apologize.

"My complaint served a purpose," he said. "The commissioners have become more aware. I have seen a change and a willingness on their part to be more open."

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