May 28, 2004

GOOD GOVERNMENT is accountable government, which in turn rests firmly on public business being performed under the public's eye. This is a core tenet not just for news gatherers but for a democratic society -- and thus, of course, has long been state law in Maryland.

In vetoing this week a bill that would have broadly defined the right to sue over violations of the state's Open Meetings Act, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. used spurious logic to perform a stunning disservice to all Marylanders -- by severely curtailing their only real means of enforcing this law.

The vetoed bill would have altered the Open Meetings Act to clarify that "any person" could file such a lawsuit. It sailed through the state Senate, 43-1, and the House, 136-3 -- opposed only by the state school board association, but not by groups representing the state's counties and cities.

The bill was aimed at reversing the damage of a Howard County court ruling in which the judge decided a resident couldn't sue the school board because he hadn't been "adversely affected" -- hadn't specifically lost income or property value -- as a result of the alleged violations.

The practical effect of that ruling was to take away a broad right that Marylanders have presumed to have for decades: the right for anyone to go to court if public business is illegally conducted in private. And in vetoing this bill, Mr. Ehrlich is now an accomplice to that theft.

The governor's logic for his veto -- the bill would lead to frivolous lawsuits -- doesn't hold water. Relatively few lawsuits are filed over open meetings violations; the courts have means to limit frivolous actions; and the state attorney general's office doesn't believe such suits cost government very much, contrary to Mr. Ehrlich's assertion.

If the governor's veto was aimed at Maryland news media -- which supported the bill -- he also hit all citizens who might feel aggrieved if, say, their county councils or school boards secretly met to raise officials' salaries. Now all they can do is complain to the state Open Meetings Compliance Board, which has no budget or enforcement power.

Open meetings lawsuits may be few, but you can bet that just their very possibility has allowed a lot more sunshine to illuminate the governance of Maryland.

This Howard County court ruling must not stand. The state Court of Special Appeals is to rule on it within a few months. And state legislators need to be prepared to override the governor's veto of this bill when they reconvene next year -- because the strength of Maryland's open meetings laws ultimately depends on the right of anyone being able to go to court to prevent the ill of closed-door government.

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