Open meetings measure opposed

Law shouldn't subject all sessions to scrutiny, school board chief says

`Balance has to be struck'

Howard County

February 20, 2003|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

Howard County Board of Education Chairman Sandra H. French pleaded yesterday with members of the Maryland House Ways and Means Committee in Annapolis to oppose a bill that would make all of the board's meetings subject to the state's Open Meetings Act.

"A delicate balance has to be struck between the public's right to know and our responsibility to do our jobs," French told the committee. "I ask that you weigh that very carefully."

French said that conducting all business under the watchful eyes of the press and public would make it impossible to protect the privacy of some employees and students.

The oversight role of school Superintendent John R. O'Rourke would suffer as well, she said, effectively allowing him "greater reign with less direct accountability."

And school system lawyer Mark Blom, claimed there was no "basis or justification for singling out the Howard County Board of Education."

But Del. Elizabeth Bobo, the Howard County Democrat who first asked for the drafting of the bill, disagrees.

Bobo said the Howard County Board of Education singled itself out by approaching her more than a year ago, asking for clarification of local and state sunshine laws that the attorney general's office has said appear to conflict.

"The board wanted us to make it easier for them to go into closed meetings," Bobo said. "We chose to go in the other direction. They just don't seem to get the meaning of open government."

The board is involved in a lawsuit in Howard County Circuit Court, defending its open-meetings practices, and has been cited twice in the past by the state's Open Meetings Compliance Board, which is entertaining new complaints from the Howard PTA Council's 27,000 members.

And in November, board member Virginia Charles, who also was at the hearing to oppose the bill, accused fellow members of violating open-meetings laws by taking prohibited actions in a closed session in choosing to amend the superintendent's contract.

"Despite negative criticism hurled by a few suspicious citizens," French said in written testimony, "this Board has followed the letter of the law in the conduct of its meetings."

There are three types of meetings recognized by the state's Open Meetings Act: open, closed and executive function, which is not under the scope of the act and meant for taking care of administrative matters supposedly not of public interest. This latter type does not require public notice or recordkeeping of any kind.

Executive function

The bill that French, Charles and another board member oppose - endorsed and introduced by the Howard County delegation - would remove the school board's access to executive-function meetings, meaning it could gather only in open session or in closed session if one of 14 identified reasons for closing a meeting are met, and that notice must be given and minutes kept for all such transactions.

French said that announcing ahead of time the place and purpose of some meetings, such as those used in the search for a superintendent in 2000, would lead to the press "stalking the parking lot and building," which would provide a disservice to the public and the school system.

John R. Woolums, director of governmental relations for the Maryland Association of Boards of Education, appeared to oppose the bill on behalf of the association.

"This bill would impose the unprecedented burden on the board to conduct all business in public, including the routine administration of existing laws and regulations," Woolums said.

Supporters of the bill

Backing the bill are the Howard PTA Council, the League of Women Voters, the county legislative delegation and two of the five school board members, though French said those two members - James P. O'Donnell and Courtney Watson - were too new and inexperienced to recognize the value of executive function.

French told the committee that members voluntarily stopped having executive-function meetings two years ago after a lawsuit was "initiated by a dissatisfied citizen" - Ellicott City parent and lawyer Allen Dyer - questioning the legality of the meetings.

But after the hearing, she said she was told that the board had met in executive function over the past couple of years to hear student and teacher appeals.

"I didn't know that was executive function," she said. "Mark Blom just told me."

The Ways and Means Committee will vote on the bill in the coming months.

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