Open those doors

December 19, 2003

THE STATEMENT of legislative policy prefacing the state open meetings laws says, "It is essential to the maintenance of a democratic society that ... public business be performed in an open and public manner, and citizens be allowed to observe."

That's such a fundamental concept that it should hardly be worth restating. Unfortunately, in Maryland these days, it very much is - because of a devastating decision last August by Howard County Circuit Judge James B. Dudley.

Ruling on a lawsuit alleging the Howard school board violated open meetings laws by discussing public matters in private meetings, Judge Dudley said an Ellicott City resident couldn't file the lawsuit because he hadn't suffered personal damages. Citing the laws' wording, the judge said citizens must show they have been "affected adversely" to bring such lawsuits.

This alarming decision - which still stands, pending appeal - decimates a basic right of all Marylanders: to take public bodies to court if they operate in secret. Howard state Del. Elizabeth Bobo agrees. She recently prefiled a bill worth wide support in the coming General Assembly session; Montgomery County Sen. Brian E. Frosh plans to file a parallel Senate bill. Both would replace the reference to a person "affected adversely" with "any person," thereby removing the cause for Judge Dudley's ruling.

This change has the support of the state official who long has been most involved in open meeting battles, Jack Schwartz, the assistant attorney general advising the state open meetings compliance board. Just consider these open meetings violations that came before the compliance board this year: The Baltimore County school renewed its superintendent's contract in private, the Baltimore City Council passed a bill to restructure itself in a closed meeting, and the Salisbury City Council gave the city's clerk a pay raise and greater responsibilities.

Government behind closed doors is anathema to journalists of course, but it poses very real dangers for all citizens that go far beyond the needs of the press.

Even before Judge Dudley's decision, Maryland's open meetings laws weren't perfect: The compliance board has no budget or enforcement power, the laws haven't been updated for such real-time electronic communications as instant messaging and video conferencing, and they provide too many exemptions, including a widely abused one for "executive functions." But if Delegate Bobo's and Senator Frosh's bills aren't passed, the laws will be worth even less and more citizens will be locked out of government deliberations. And that would be intolerable.

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