Bill to clarify Open Meetings Act gets big show of support at hearing

Proposal would remedy ruling limiting lawsuits

February 05, 2004|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

A bill that would clarify the state's Open Meetings Act - and skirt a Howard Circuit Court ruling that limited those who could take legal action to enforce it - received broad support from groups that included statewide media and the attorney general's office at a legislative committee hearing yesterday in Annapolis.

"It's important this bill move quickly," said Barbara Coit, speaking on behalf of the League of Women Voters before the House Health and Government Operations Committee. "As [the law] stands now, it flies in the face of democracy."

The bill would delete wording in the state law that says only people "affected adversely" by a public body's failure to comply with the Open Meetings Act may sue in circuit court, and replace it with phrasing that says "any person" may sue.

The clarification had been the general understanding for most until Howard Circuit Judge James B. Dudley dismissed an open-meetings case in August brought against the Howard County school board because he said the plaintiff failed to show adverse effect, which Dudley construed to mean having had a property right damaged.

The term had never been defined in court, and the ruling caused a stir among freedom-of-information activists who feared it would narrow the pool of those who could file lawsuits.

"All people in Maryland have a stake in knowing what goes on behind closed doors," said Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a Howard County Democrat who submitted the bill, which is co-sponsored by Del. John R. Leopold, an Anne Arundel County Republican.

Yesterday, representatives from the attorney general's office, the Maryland-Delaware-DC Press Association and the Open Meetings Compliance Board - as well as Allen Dyer, the Ellicott City attorney whose lawsuit prompted the ruling - testified in favor of the legislation.

"We believe this is in keeping with the original intent of the open-meetings law," Bobo said.

The only opposition to the bill came in written testimony from the Maryland Association of Boards of Education, which complained that it might open the "floodgates" to wasteful lawsuits.

But Assistant Attorney General Jack Schwartz said that notion "seems like a stretch" because of the time, money and effort required to file suit.

He added that the Open Meetings Compliance Board, which he advises, receives only about 15 complaints a year and that process requires only a letter, unlike filing suit.

The compliance board, which can offer advisory opinions only about whether violations have occurred, regularly comes under fire from those who claim it has no teeth, which Schwartz acknowledged.

"For enforceable remedies, a person has to go to court," Schwartz said, adding that limiting the judicial remedy by requiring adverse effect is not sound policy.

"It's your law," he told the committee of legislators. "You can make it clear."

An identical bill was submitted in the Senate, and a hearing is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. today before the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee in the Lowe House Office Building.

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