Opening Carroll's closed doors

Sunshine law: Commissioners shouldn't be doing public's business in so many private meetings.

March 29, 2001

THE STATE Open Meetings Act still seems to be a closed book for the Carroll County commissioners.

After a thorough discussion with the law's Compliance Board this month about more than 50 alleged violations, the commissioners met privately on decisions about the controversial Piney Run water plant project.

Despite assurances of good faith and better judgment made to the compliance panel, the three elected Carroll leaders apparently choose not to respect the 10-year-old state law's intent.

The law requires open meetings of public bodies, except for such items as personnel matters, land acquisition, legal advice and business prospects. But the public board must publicly vote to close the meeting, and state a reason.

In counties with the commissioner-only form of government, officials may meet privately because they exercise both executive and legislative powers.

That exception has been used frequently in Carroll. And sometimes decisions are made that should have been reached in the light of public scrutiny. That prompted the complaint to the compliance board.

Last week's closed session produced a decision to mail a brochure to 7,000 homes in South Carroll outlining why the county is building the $14 million water treatment plant. Asked about the Open Meetings requirement, Commissioner Donald I. Dell explained that there was no official vote, only a consensus decision. That legalistic evasion erodes public confidence in government, and betrays the spirit of open meetings laws.

The Open Meetings Compliance Board will rule next month on the Carroll County cases. But the commissioners should heed this advice: Consider every meeting an open one, unless there is a bona fide reason to do otherwise.

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