Dyer's meeting crusade not over

Attorney to appeal case to state's highest court

Suit was filed in Nov. 2000

School board accused of violating openness law

July 27, 2005|By Hanah Cho | Hanah Cho,SUN STAFF

An Ellicott City attorney said his nearly-five-year crusade to take the Howard County Board of Education to court for alleged open-meetings violations is not over even though the state's second-highest court ruled against his legal challenge this week.

Allen Dyer said he plans to petition the Maryland Court of Appeals, the state's top judicial body, to review the most recent ruling in his case because it is an "important public issue."

"For me, what I'm trying to do rather than letting the frustration cloud my vision and my action, I want to refocus on why I started this in the first place," he said. "This is the time to go back and [reassert] my principle of open government."

But Leslie R. Stellman, a lawyer representing the school board, said it is unlikely that the Court of Appeals will take Dyer's case. Maryland's high court receives hundreds of such requests each year and has discretion over cases it hears.

At issue is the decision by the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, which upheld a lower court's ruling that said Dyer did not have legal standing to sue the school board and its members. It was the latest development in Dyer's lawsuit filed in November 2000, which alleged that the school board met in secret, failed to give proper meeting notices and discussed government business illegally by e-mail.

"It's unfortunate that we had to prepare and try each of Mr. Dyer's claims when from the very outset the court has agreed that Mr. Dyer lacked standing under the law to even bring the case," said Stellman, noting that the school board has steadfastly denied Dyer's complaints.

For nearly five years, Dyer tried to convince the Maryland court system that he - an average taxpayer and parent - had the right to take the Howard school board to court for alleged violations of the Maryland Open Meetings Act.

Howard County Circuit Court Judge James B. Dudley, however, disagreed with Dyer in 2003, ruling that citizens must prove they have suffered specific damages under the state's open-meetings law - which had stated that only a person "adversely affected" by an alleged violation can sue a public body.

Dudley's decision prompted state lawmakers to clarify the law this year, guaranteeing the right of any citizen to take a public body to court for alleged open-meetings violations.

As a result, Dyer petitioned the Court of Special Appeals to apply the revised open-meetings law in his case.

But in a 32-page decision, the three-judge panel found that the revised legislation was not meant to be applied retroactively.

"Moreover, nothing in the bill files indicate an intent to have this amendment apply to complaints that had already been filed, much less to complaints that had been adjudicated," Judge James A. Kenney III wrote for the panel.

In affirming the lower court's ruling, the Court of Special Appeals found that Dyer lacked standing under the open-meetings law. In addition, the court said it was not persuaded by Dyer's argument that he also had a right to sue as a taxpayer, property owner, parent and as a former candidate for a Board of Education seat.

The court said taxpayers must show "special damages or injury" to establish standing to bring complaints against public officials.

Dyer took exception to that argument, saying, "It's not a matter of $10 million or $20 million, it's a matter of what our government is doing."

Because the open-meetings law has been changed, the decision has little impact, said Mary R. Craig, a media lawyer who filed a "friend of the court" brief for the Maryland-Delaware-DC Press Association in Dyer's appeal.

"It's a moot point from a media's point of view because of the amendment," she said. "It's clear now that the media would have standing to challenge a closed meeting."

For Dyer, his fight isn't over.

"I'm a citizen and I have grievances, and those grievances are legitimate," said Dyer, whose expenses approach nearly $10,000.

Furthermore, Dyer said his case matters because a separate open-meetings lawsuit was put on hold pending a decision by the Court of Special Appeals. An Ellicott City parent sued the school board in 2003 for alleged open-meetings violations.

"The same issues are involved in that case," said Dyer, who is representing the parent. "That case was filed prior to the [open meetings] amendment but would be heard after the amendment."

For Howard County school officials, however, the Court of Special Appeals ruling puts an end to "a cloud over the school system's head for five years," according to Courtney Watson, chairman of the Board of Education.

It also came as a relief to Sandra H. French, a former member who was the school board chairman when Dyer filed his lawsuit in 2000.

"I always knew that we had done right and had always done our best," said French, who testified on behalf of the school board before the Howard County Circuit Court. "It's nice to have this over with. Board members wished that the court could decide on the merits because we believed that we would win on the merits."

Neither the Howard County Circuit Court nor the Court of Special Appeals addressed Dyer's multiple complaints. But complaints involving Dyer's case also went before the state's Open Meetings Compliance Board, which ruled in favor of the school system.

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