Citizens not always welcome at meetings

City panels deliberate at sites that discourage participation

Officials say sessions promote debate

October 11, 2004|By Laura Vozzella and Doug Donovan | Laura Vozzella and Doug Donovan,SUN STAFF

In Baltimore City Hall, where the workings of government are promoted as "open and transparent," there are meetings where John Q. Public can watch city officials in action.

And then there are the "premeetings." The City Council lunches. The mayor's lunches.

Those are the places where the real work of Baltimore's elected officials often gets done -- places citizens can't easily get into, if they even knew where to go.

Held in rooms barely big enough for officials to squeeze in, sometimes behind locked doors, these gatherings are no longer closed to the media but are all but off-limits to the public.

Critics say officials are making decisions in secret meetings, then rubber-stamping them in public. An assistant attorney general, while refusing to discuss the city's specific actions, said holding meetings in rooms where the public is unwelcome or unable to fit violates the spirit of the state's Open Meetings Act.

"They are afraid to debate in public," said Joan Floyd, a Remington neighborhood activist and Green Party candidate for council president this fall. "We are not children. We can handle controversy."

City officials stand by the tradition of the premeeting -- a forum that they say promotes frank discussion while not officially excluding the public.

"We're a pretty open city government," said Mayor Martin O'Malley, who ran for office five years ago on a promise of open government.

He said the premeetings encourage "a free exchange of ideas that is open and honest and candid, especially without the fear of your remarks being [taken] out of context."

The Board of Estimates, the spending board that signs off on the city's big-ticket purchases, holds its official meeting at 9 a.m. every Wednesday in a large chamber on the second floor of City Hall.

`Minimeeting'

But the five-member board actually convenes at 8:30 a.m. for what is known as the pre- or "minimeeting."

Just off the chamber, the members and their top aides meet in a room just large enough for the table for 12 where they sit. Another dozen chairs are crammed around the perimeter of the room. City staff usually take up all but two or three of those seats. The rest are usually claimed by reporters, who were barred until the late 1980s or early 1990s. There is virtually no room to stand.

The door between the chamber, where a couple dozen people usually gather for the official meeting, and the smaller room is left open. Private citizens interested in observing the premeeting could, at least in theory, claim a chair simply by being an early bird. But they would risk getting the third degree -- or worse.

A high school intern who once accompanied a Sun reporter to a premeeting was ordered to give up his seat by Council President Sheila Dixon, who heads the board. She told him he was taking up a spot that belonged to a "real" person.

Public meetings must be held in rooms big enough to accommodate the number of people who are reasonably expected to attend, said Jack Schwartz, an assistant attorney general and counsel to the state's Open Meetings Compliance Board.

"That doesn't mean you have to have a meeting in Ravens stadium just in case 50,000 people show up," said Schwartz, who was speaking generally and declined to comment about Baltimore's practices. "But you can't meet in a broom closet either."

Cramped quarters

The cramped quarters and cold reception haven't deterred every would-be observer. Leonard J. Kerpelman, an activist from Northwest Baltimore, is a regular at Board of Estimates meetings. In May, he took along his video camera and tried to film the proceedings for public access television. A loud argument ensued.

"Get him out of here now, because if I have to put my hands on him, I'm gonna be in trouble," Dixon said before police escorted him from the room.

The city has allowed Kerpelman to film at subsequent meetings. But he complains that the mayor's office, which manages the public access station, does not air the material.

"I want to show the contrast of what goes on in the premeeting, which is really a secret meeting, compared to what they do out here" in public, he said.

No public discussion

Unlike the premeeting, where questions about items are aired, the public portion of the meeting often consists of little or no discussion. The board votes on hundreds of items in one fell swoop, with only those considered "non-routine" taken up in public. Sometimes every non-routine item is moved to the "routine" portion of the agenda in the premeeting, so nothing is discussed in public.

There is a similar contrast between meetings of the full City Council and the luncheons held hours before the Monday night sessions. While bills are often passed at the meetings without debate, members use the lunches to discuss legislation to be introduced that evening.

The lunch meetings sometimes take place on the fourth floor of City Hall, in a room with a few extra chairs. The press is allowed inside and the doors are kept open, so someone sitting in a nearby lounge could listen in.

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