Meeting of mayor, council may have violated law

Map of proposed districts offered at closed lunch

January 29, 2003|By Doug Donovan | Doug Donovan,SUN STAFF

Mayor Martin O'Malley and the City Council may have violated rules prohibiting secret meetings when O'Malley introduced his map to reshape the council at a closed-door lunch Monday.

"It certainly sounds like a violation of the Open Meetings Act," said James Browning, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, a voters' advocacy group. "If the presence of the mayor and something to eat is reason to lock the door, why not draft the budget over lunch?"

On Monday, the mayor and more than 10 council members ate a lunch of chicken, fish and mashed potatoes before the mayor presented his voter-mandated map that carves the city into 14 single-member districts. The new map will replace the current system of six, three-member districts, shrinking the council from 18 to 14 members. The council president will continue to be elected citywide.

"It certainly raises questions," William Varga, an assistant attorney general, said of the lunch.

Varga pointed to an April 9, 1996, ruling from the state Attorney General's Open Meetings Compliance Board that prohibits private lunches held by the council or the mayor if pending council agenda items are discussed.

"If, at the mayor's luncheon, a quorum of the city council functioned as a quorum by engaging in any aspect of the legislative process, including a briefing on or discussion of any matter pending before the council, the [Open Meetings] Act will have been violated," states the ruling, which was prompted by a challenge initiated by The Sun.

Baltimore City Solicitor Thurman W. Zollicoffer Jr. said that the Open Meetings Act did not apply to the lunch because legislation was not introduced or discussed. He said giving the council the map was simply meant as a "courtesy." He said no questions were asked.

"The mayor is under no obligation to have an open meeting," Zollicoffer said.

He said the redistricting map and the official legislation that spells out the boundaries of the map are entirely different.

"A map is a map, legislation is words," Zollicoffer said. "[The mayor] just showed the council the map. The map itself is not legislation."

Zollicoffer said the legislation spelling out the boundaries of the proposed districts was not drafted at the time the mayor presented the map to the council. A legal opinion and a census breakdown of each district were also provided to the council at the lunch.

Council members who attended the lunch said O'Malley gave a few brief remarks about the small map before distributing it. A larger map in the corner of the conference room where the lunch was held contained names of all city streets. Within minutes after getting their copies of the map, many council members gathered around the larger map, talking about the proposal's details, several council members said.

"The council went in there pretty eager to get the map," said Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr.

The coalition of labor and community groups that put the referendum requiring a smaller council on the Nov. 5 ballot gathered yesterday to discuss its opposition to the mayor's map.

"The council and the mayor just gave us another legal footing to challenge this process," said Mitch Klein, coordinator of Community and Labor United for Baltimore. "It's a closed-door policy, and we're going to kick their doors down. It's not as if they didn't know better."

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