Shining a light into the crevasses of Maryland's capital

Secret: Advocates of open government take heart from a board's ruling that a long-standing Annapolis practice of holding committee votes in private lounges was improper.

August 07, 2005|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

IN THE TWO years since Aaron Meisner began visiting the capitol in Annapolis with the goal of barring slot machines from the state, he has schooled himself in the peculiarities of the Maryland legislature.

The stockbroker and Mount Washington resident has learned to arrive by 8 a.m. if he wants to testify on a slots bill, and realizes he could wait 12 hours to be heard. After he speaks, he waits for lawmakers to decide. Sometimes it takes days. Sometimes weeks. Sometimes never.

"They kind of go into a black hole for a while, and then suddenly you hear the results of the vote," said Meisner, coordinating chairman of Stop- SlotsMaryland. "You could make the complaint that it lacks transparency. There's all this wrangling and back-room negotiating."

But light is beginning to shine into the crevasses of the state capital, where some observers say public scrutiny is discouraged and certain practices of the General Assembly might be illegal.

Last month, a board that oversees compliance of public bodies with the state open meetings law ruled that a long-standing practice of holding Assembly committee votes in private lounges was improper.

"The very fact that the House lounge is behind a sign that bars public access means that the meeting is closed in practice," the board wrote in an eight-page opinion that will likely change the way some business is conducted in the State House. The votes must be held in an area accessible to the public, the board determined.

That ruling was prompted by a complaint from Tom Marquardt, executive editor of The Capital newspaper in Annapolis, who was disturbed by what he observed during the final week of he 90-day session this year.

Chairmen regularly stood on the floor of the House, calling committees into impromptu voting meetings that had not been advertised. Didn't this violate state law that requires advance notice of meetings, Marquardt wondered? Toward the end of the session, those votes were occurring in private lounges.

More commonly, when lawmakers were ready to decide on legislation in the committee rooms, they often posted signs on doors that say "Voting." As a matter of practice, the rooms are cleared of most observers, especially lobbyists and governor's aides.

"That just struck me as intimidation," said Marquardt, who is chairman of the Freedom of Information subcommittee of the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association. In his complaint, he called the signs an "implicit" warning to the public to stay away.

"The committees have created a routine that implicitly discourages public attendance and makes in unreasonably difficult, if not impossible, to determine the time, location and subject of voting sessions," Marquardt wrote.

Committee votes in Annapolis are no trivial matter. Amendments that drastically alter the meaning of a bill are added in committees. Committee chairmen wield vast power and can kill bills that they or legislative leaders don't like by leaving them in their desk drawers, never bringing them to a vote.

While the public hearing schedule for bills is published on the Internet, committee votes do not take place on the same day of the hearing.

Chairmen post lists outside their doors of what bills are scheduled to be voted on that day; votes take place one or two days each week. But sometimes bills on the list don't come up.

Rooms are almost always devoid of observers when votes are taken. Annapolis lobbyists know they are not welcome in committee rooms during voting sessions to avoid any chance of their influencing the outcome. So they wait in hallways outside.

Members of the public who don't know the customs appear to take their cues from lobbyists and also wait in the hallways. Members of the media are allowed to attend, but on occasion they, too, are asked to leave.

Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a Howard County Democrat and an advocate of open meetings laws, acknowledged the need for change. "I think ultimately the public should be pushing to have the committee votes online, so the minute we push the button they know how they voted - just like we do on the floor," she said.

Things are better than they were years ago, when committee votes weren't recorded, said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. The legislature tries to make its proceedings open, he said, and the questionable practice of votes in lounges occurs only during the final frantic days of the session, he said. "I think we need to be more aware. It's a wake-up call," said Miller, speaking of the compliance board ruling. "It really isn't an issue until the last day or two of the legislative session."

Meisner, the anti-slots advocate, doesn't think the current system is all bad. The legislature's maneuverings, he said, help keep the executive branch on its toes.

"Annapolis has its own weird rhythm," he said. "We have a strong governor in terms of the constitution. By being able to manage the timing of the votes, it shifts some of the balance back to the legislature."

In its opinion, the compliance board, consisting of Walter Sondheim Jr., Courtney J. McKeldin and Tyler G. Webb, determined that the "voting" signs were not improper. The board acknowledged that there appears to be an "unwritten rule" that prohibits lobbyists from sitting in on voting sessions, "but its contours are unclear."

The board also said that chairmen summoning their committees into meetings from the floor was sufficient notice under state law. In the rush of legislation, "there is no practical alternative," it wrote.

But the lounge voting sessions need to change, the board determined.

Marquardt said he was encouraged by the partial victory. "To me," he said, "it is like a warning shot to say that the public is out there watching."

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