Opening officials' closed doors

Some citizens, concerned they're being kept in the dark about public issues, are pressing for access and, in turn, are bringing more attention to the state's open-meetings law.

March 13, 2005|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

Allen Dyer ran into a legal brick wall when he went to court to try to get the Howard County Board of Education to conduct more of the public's business in public. A county Circuit Court judge threw out his lawsuit, saying he didn't have legal standing to sue the school system.

But the Ellicott City man's four-year crusade for more openness in government scored a victory in Annapolis this year, when the General Assembly overrode Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s veto to enact legislation spelling out that every citizen has a right to go to court to enforce Maryland's open-meetings law.

Such is the state of affairs on the front lines of open government these days. Controversies over hot-button issues like schools, development or taxes often generate complaints from citizens about being kept in the dark by their elected and appointed representatives. In some instances, they have prevailed in pressing for more open meetings or for more information about what their government is doing.

An Aberdeen citizens group won an out-of-court settlement last year, for instance, to get the Army to release maps showing locations of toxic wastes at Aberdeen Proving Ground, where the military once developed and trained with chemical weapons. After Sept. 11, the Army had begun withholding or censoring such maps, noting the need to guard against terrorism.

But sometimes, people complaining of secrecy in government learn that the closed-door sessions they object to are permitted by state law, or that information once routinely provided is now withheld to safeguard homeland security.

"One of the worst casualties of all this is the citizens' trust of their own government," said Owen Thorne, a Cecil County resident whose community group has complained, with some success, about lack of public notice when large-scale development projects are up for county approval. "We want to work with government, not against it."

As part of a coordinated Sunshine Week campaign, newspapers, broadcast stations and online media across the country this week are featuring news stories and commentaries emphasizing the importance of open government.

The state's Open Meetings Compliance Board found violations of the law in 14 of the 20 opinions it issued last year in response to complaints from citizens, the press and government officials. The 15 complaints logged last year were nearly a third fewer than filings in the previous year.

The three-member board's rulings are advisory. But the relative handful of complaints - and even fewer lawsuits - suggests that government officials are generally complying with the open-meetings law, the board said in its annual reports.

"I don't think you find deliberate violations," said David Bliden, executive director of the Maryland Association of Counties. "You find different perspectives on the interpretation of the law, and you also have inadvertent violations."

`Executive function' debate

Dyer's is one of those different perspectives. An unsuccessful candidate five years ago for Howard County's elected school board, he said he merely wanted to be more involved in the system that was educating his children.

But after an acquaintance questioned the Howard school panel's habit of huddling behind closed doors before scheduled public meetings, Dyer filed a series of complaints with the state open-meetings board, then went to court when nearly all his allegations were dismissed.

He didn't fare any better with the Circuit Court, where a judge ruled in 2003 that although his children attended county schools, only people who could show that the board's activities cost them income or property value had a right to sue. Brushing aside the governor's veto warning about encouraging frivolous lawsuits, the legislature acted this year to ensure that anyone - regardless of financial or personal stake - can go to court over closed-door meetings.

Dyer, a computer consultant and lawyer, is waiting for a ruling from the Court of Special Appeals on whether he'll get a chance in court to try to prove his claims that the school board met illegally in secret in 2000.

Although the law stresses that government ought to meet in the open, it allows state, county and municipal boards, councils and commissions to meet in private when they are performing "executive, judicial or quasi-judicial functions." Elected officials frequently cite their "executive" role in going behind closed doors, though the law does not spell out when such sessions are appropriate.

"It's a tough issue," said William R. Varga, an assistant attorney general who works with the compliance board. "It's a delicate balance, especially for small municipalities where you don't have staff and elected officials are involved in day-to-day administration."

Dyer complained in his suit that the Howard school board hid behind the "executive function" exemption to meet in private. He also alleged that board members discussed government business illegally by e-mail, such as reimbursement for their expenses.

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