"My concern is not so much with what public bodies do as the way they do it," Dyer said. "The way they conduct their operations is in such a way as to generate a feeling among the citizens that the citizen has no control. That, to me, is the death of democracy."
Howard school officials counter that Dyer has unfairly portrayed them as secretive. They point out that the state open-meetings board found only three relatively minor violations among the many things that Dyer and others, including the PTA council of Howard County, complained about.
However, since the dispute began, the five-member school board has stopped holding private retreats and provides better notice to the public of its meetings.
"The awareness of the board members is so high, we probably go overboard," said Courtney Watson, president of the board. "Three of us don't even stand together, generally, so there's not even a perception that we're speaking."
The board also no longer holds closed-door pre-meetings under the rubric of performing its "executive function." The legislature stripped that right from the Howard board two years ago.
The change has not caused the school board difficulty, Watson said, though it "makes our meetings a little more cumbersome," with members having to discuss in open session such mundane matters as setting the next meeting date.
The Howard board is likely to regain its right to discuss administrative matters in private later this year, when the law passed two years ago sunsets.
Dyer acknowledges "a lot of movement in the right direction" by school board members. But he warns that unless the courts or the legislature tighten the law, governing bodies will continue to meet in secret far more than they should. That's why he's continued to press his lawsuit, he said - to get an appellate court ruling that will either put more of the public's business in the public or inspire more legislative reforms.
"I believe that citizens have to work to keep good government," Dyer said. "I don't think you can vote every two years or four years and hope that the people that are elected are going to comply with the proper process without citizen oversight."
His legislative victory this year was a backhanded one - essentially reinstating a right virtually everyone thought citizens had to begin with. The costs, in time and legal expense, to press public-records and open-meetings claims through courts can be so daunting that many give up. Dyer acknowledges that some have thought him "wacko" for pursuing his quest.
"All I'm doing is asking questions, basically," he said last week, "and that's an important part of democracy - one I don't think we can eliminate."
Dyer could be getting help from another legislative ally. Del. Michael D. Smigiel Sr., a Cecil County Republican, has proposed studying whether to tighten or eliminate the executive-function exemption to open meetings. He contends that it gives officials "an excuse for closing meetings that otherwise should be open."
Development disputes have fueled friction over open government in Cecil, which is coping with growth pressures from Baltimore to the south and from Pennsylvania and Delaware to the north and east. Residents concerned about the pace and scale of building have packed hearings and government meetings in recent months, and they have complained about not being given enough notice when a big, new project is coming up for approval.
Until last month, Cecil residents learned about what new residential subdivisions were planned only when the local newspaper, the Cecil Whig, published the planning commission's agenda on the Friday before its scheduled Monday meeting.
"If you're going to build a huge development in somebody's back yard, they want to be there to find out what's going on," Thorne said.
Residents' grumbling about short notice of development approvals prompted Smigiel to introduce a bill in Annapolis this year that would have required the planning commission to publish its development agenda at least 15 days before to a meeting.
He withdrew the measure after the commissioners complained, insisting that they had already taken steps to address residents' complaints.
Last month, the county began notifying people who own property next to proposed subdivisions at least 15 days before the project comes up for planning commission approval, according to Eric Sennstrom, the county's director of planning, zoning, recreation and parks. All proposed housing projects are being posted on the county's Web site as soon as plans are submitted, and developers are required to post roadside notices before the project comes up for a vote.
Sennstrom said the complaints about being kept in the dark came from those who are "new to the system and not familiar with the process."
Thorne, chairman of the Appleton Regional Community Alliance, said his group simply has become vigilant and assertive. "We're kind of like a splinter that they can't get rid of," Thorne said.