Open meetings measure passed

Bill targeting school board goes next to Ehrlich

Provision allows 2005 expiration

April 08, 2003|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

Both houses of the Maryland General Assembly have passed a bill that would make the Howard County Board of Education subject to the most stringent open meetings regulations in the state - if the governor signs it into law, as expected.

"Although there are many permutations and combinations of state law that affect the [24] individual boards of education across the state, this is the first to make any of them subject to the open meetings law all the time," said Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a Howard County Democrat.

Because the bill is precedent-setting, a sunset amendment was added that allows for automatic expiration of the act in 2005 - two years after it is set to take effect Oct. 1.

"That will help keep a little bit of a spotlight on this," Bobo said. "We'll try it for two years and then revisit it."

Bobo proposed the bill in December after the school board was widely criticized for what some said were secretive practices and alleged abuses in certain private meetings, though the Board of Education has maintained that it has done nothing wrong.

The meetings in question involved executive function, a type of conference that is outside the scope of the Open Meetings Act and intended for discussing housekeeping matters and other minutiae without cumbersome note-taking and public input.

The Open Meetings Act governs two types of meetings - open meetings, which are accessible to the public, and closed meetings, used to discuss and handle specific matters outlined in the state regulation, such as employee discipline and to protect the privacy of individuals in matters not relating to public business. Both require that minutes be kept and proper public notice given.

This bill would require all Howard County Board of Education meetings to be governed by those standards, effectively eliminating executive-function meetings.

"We will find a way to comply that best meets the needs of everybody and that fulfills the law. There's no debate on that," said Sandra H. French, school board chairman, who spoke out against the bill before the House Ways and Means Committee in Annapolis. "We're going to need some written directions from our counsel, though."

Board lawyer Mark Blom said he will have to draw up procedural plans, and he expects the worst of the bill's burden to be felt when the board is handling such things as student appeals and suspensions, which were previously dealt with in executive-function proceedings.

"It's somewhat frustrating because no one cares about it," Blom said. "No one who was promoting this bill wanted student material or employee information discussed publicly, but the sweep of this bill is so broad that we now have to go through a lot of effort in order to keep conducting those meetings in private."

The board has said it vastly curtailed its use of executive function over the past two years because it is being sued in Circuit Court over suspected open meetings violations by Ellicott City lawyer Allen Dyer.

One of Dyer's contentions is that the board never had legal access to executive function and that ambiguous local laws need to clarify that. It is an outcome he was hoping the courts would give him, but he has instead found it in the bill.

"The sunset provision is a problem, but it's a minor problem," Dyer said, adding that he hopes the trial run persuades other counties to follow suit. "That would be the silver lining."

But that is exactly what Montgomery County Del. Nancy J. King, a Democrat, hopes does not happen. King was one of two delegates to vote against the bill (137 voted for it and two were absent; the Senate passed it 46-0). She worries that a dangerous precedent has been set.

"There are some things that need to be confidential that the board handles," said King, a former two-time president of the Montgomery County Board of Education.

Assuming the legislature's session ended yesterday as planned, the General Assembly has 20 days to present the passed bill to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who has 30 days to veto it, if he chooses, but Bobo does not think that will be an issue, particularly in light of the strong support the bill received in both houses.

Dyer, whose oft-rescheduled trial resumes next week, is keeping his fingers crossed.

"The Bobo bill does fulfill a function, a very valuable function," he said. "It takes effect in October, whereas anything by the courts can be postponed until hell freezes over."

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