Arrogance unmasked

January 17, 2003

OVER THE YEARS, stewards of the public's dollars have been very creative about skirting Maryland's open-meetings law.

They've tried conducting municipal business at dinner parties. They've scheduled secret meetings an hour before their advertised public meetings, deciding how they're going to vote before they actually voted.

They've avoided the public they represent by making decisions via telephone tree and conference call. And they've played the game of governmental musical chairs, in which they prevent a quorum from convening by sending a member or two scurrying from the room.

Invariably, when they're caught at it, they look arrogant or foolish or both. Their secrecy typically hasn't spared them a public roasting, if that's what they were trying to achieve. What it has done, though, is prevented great ideas as well as constructive criticism from being voiced by the people who will be most affected by public policy decisions. Worst of all, their secret meetings damage the vital trust invested in their leadership by the taxpayers.

So now comes the Baltimore County Board of Education, which recently divided into two groups to discuss next year's tight school budget outside the public's view. By splitting up, the board avoided having a quorum, which would have legally required the meeting to be public.

At two unadvertised meetings, board members gave Superintendent Joe A. Hairston a general idea of where they stood on potential program trims, anticipated state education aid, salary matters, and other budgetary issues. Their suggestions will affect policy and programs, and should have been made under public scrutiny.

Board president Donald L. Arnold contends the board did nothing illegal, and needed to have the discussions in private to avoid "creating a lot of anxiety" in the school community.

The tactic failed. The ultimate anxiety-producer for educators and for parents of the county's 108,000 students is knowing that your appointed government representatives don't trust you enough to talk in your presence about how they will manage the schools' lifeblood.

Regardless of whether the board's secret meetings with the superintendent and the school system's budget chief were technically legal, they were literally sneaky.

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