Council dodges law on meetings

Dixon, some members conduct business behind closed doors at City Hall

August 09, 2002|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

Baltimore's City Council violated the state's Open Meetings Act when it met without public notice yesterday to discuss plans to reshape the council and the Board of Estimates, a Maryland assistant attorney general said.

The council decided to add five bills to Monday's agenda in a last-minute response to a community group's plan to shrink the 19-member council by four seats and create single-member districts.

How the council came to its decision is not known because the 90-minute meeting at City Hall was closed except for a moment when a 10th council member arrived and created a quorum, forcing the session open.

Two reporters and a community activist walked into the meeting room about a minute after the 10th member. Three other council members promptly left, ending the quorum and forcing the observers out.

"If a quorum of the council is present and discussed public business without providing public notice of the meeting, that in itself is a violation of the Open Meetings Act," said William R. Varga, an assistant attorney general. "That's black and white."

Council President Sheila Dixon, who called the meeting and held it in her office conference room, said no public notice was required because the quorum lasted "for one second."

"This is not an official meeting of the council," Dixon countered. "We have these kinds of meeting all the time, briefings on issues."

But, Varga said, assembling a quorum - however briefly - triggers public notice requirements.

Throughout much of the meeting, council members came and went, keeping their numbers just short of a quorum. Council members said that was not intentional.

The council has been known to play musical chairs to avoid a quorum - a tactic that violates the spirit, but not the letter, of the open-meetings law, Varga said.

"That brings to mind the scene in the sitcoms where they hang a sheet between a double bed so people don't think they're sleeping in the same bed," said James Browning, executive director of Common Cause Maryland.

As soon as the reporters and activist entered the room, council members Kenneth N. Harris Sr., Catherine E. Pugh and Agnes Welch left.

The three council members said the timing of their exits was a coincidence.

Pugh said she had to make a phone call. Harris said he just decided to get up. Welch said she needed some paperwork. Dixon offered another explanation: "They had other meetings going on at the same time."

Councilman John L. Cain said there was no attempt to keep the meeting closed.

"What's the big deal?" he asked. "We had arguing to do."

The council decided at the meeting to present four bills to trim the council on Monday's agenda, Dixon said. If approved, the proposals - which cut two to four seats but maintain multimember districts - would go on the November ballot.

In order to persuade some council members to go along with those bills, the council agreed to put a fifth bill on the agenda. That bill, which also would need ballot approval, would wrest the Board of Estimates from the mayor's control by eliminating two mayoral appointees.

The council decided to resurrect the five bills, which had languished in committee for months, after a coalition of community and labor groups successfully petitioned to get its plan on the November ballot.

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