Carroll sessions scrutinized

March 27, 2001|By Brenda J. Buote | Brenda J. Buote,SUN STAFF

Nine days after meeting with Maryland's Open Meetings Compliance Board about conducting business in public sessions, the Carroll commissioners held a private meeting concerning a planned $14 million water treatment plant.

A legal expert said such a meeting, at which the commissioners decided to mail a brochure detailing their rationale for constructing a water treatment plant on Piney Run Reservoir near Sykesville, must be held in public session. In addition, the Maryland open meetings law requires the commissioners to meet in public session to discuss legislative decisions.

"It seems to me that the decision to build the ... treatment plant and the subordinate decision to mail out a brochure explaining the rationale for that decision is a legislative action, not an executive one," said Alice Lucan, a lawyer for the Maryland-Delaware-District of Columbia Press Association.

On Friday afternoon, after hours of public budget discussions, the commissioners met privately without the press or public present and agreed to mail a brochure to 7,000 county residents detailing the decision by Commissioners Donald I. Dell and Robin Bartlett Frazier to move ahead with plans to build a water treatment plant at Piney Run.

"The decision was made as a casual decision," Dell said. "There was no vote taken; we simply reached a consensus." Both Frazier and Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge agreed with Dell's recollection of the meeting, although Gouge does not support the three-member board's decision to draw water from the reservoir.

Elected officials can meet two ways without the public being present. One is by meeting under "executive function," which the Carroll commissioners refer to as "executive session"; the other is to meet in closed session.

Public boards may go into a closed session to discuss personnel matters, land acquisition, legal issues or business prospects.

Under executive function, a public board can convene privately to delegate duties or conduct routine administrative business -- which includes almost anything but making or changing laws.

The commissioners met informally with the open meetings board March 14 to discuss 51 possible violations of the 1991 law, which is meant to guarantee that government decisions are made publicly.

At that meeting, Walter Sondheim Jr., chairman of the three-member open meetings board, urged the commissioners to consistently ask themselves and their staff if a good reason exists for closing a meeting.

"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."

Said Neil Ridgely, who filed the complaint alleging the 51 violations: "I'm surprised and disappointed by this [private meeting]. I thought they had become sensitized to the issue as a result of their meeting with the open meetings compliance board. It's obvious they just don't get it."

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