Police Panel May Be Illegal

Chief's closed-door citizens advisory council meetings questioned

October 16, 2005|By MELISSA HARRIS | MELISSA HARRIS,SUN REPORTER

Howard County police are recruiting people to join the chief's citizens advisory council - a little-known panel that meets behind closed doors each month, likely in violation of the state open-meetings law.

The 23-person panel, in existence since 1990, advises Chief Wayne Livesay on everything from his annual budget to the department's racial profiling policy.

But unlike groups that advise other area police departments - or a similar panel that advises the county schools - Howard's police advisory group does not post its meetings, open them to nonmembers or publish minutes afterward.

"I'm not comfortable with an open discussion because I would have to be careful about what I say, which would defeat the purpose of the council," Livesay said. "This is my council, not a public council."

William Varga, an assistant state attorney general and lawyer to the Maryland Open Meetings Compliance Board, said that the General Assembly expanded the definition of a "public body" last year to include advisory groups that are created by department heads, such as planning and zoning directors, and police and fire chiefs.

The Howard group's job doesn't match the law's technical definition of an "advisory function." However, it also fails to meet the criteria for groups given closed-door privilege. The compliance board ruled more than a decade ago that public bodies doing work that the act does not "define" still must follow it.

Varga recommends that Livesay consult with his department's attorney before holding more closed meetings, but said that someone would have to file a complaint with the state board for it to rule on the issue.

Livesay was unavailable last week for comment on Varga's statement, but in an earlier interview, he said that opening the meetings would make them unmanageable.

"I need to know who's attending and why they're there," said Livesay, who appoints council members.

Livesay is not required by law to have such a council. He could dissolve it, rather than open it to the public.

Howard County schools, and police in Anne Arundel and Montgomery counties also have advisory boards. All of their meetings are open to the public. The school system's panel announces its meetings to parents.

"If the chief thinks he can't call a spade a spade in public because it will make people upset, then maybe he shouldn't be calling a spade a spade in the first place," said Ellen Giles, chairwoman of the Howard County school district's Citizens Advisory Committee. "No matter where you are, public officials shouldn't say things that they would be ashamed to say in public."

Giles said that she can understand the chief's desire to close meetings. Opening them may convert the council from "an internal think-tank" into "more of a PR thing," and may give critics a "pulpit." But she said that her 60-member board has had open meetings for more than 30 years and that hasn't diminished its power.

"Yes, it's hard to reach consensus," she said. "We may not take a position on a controversial topic, but instead, we'll offer the superintendent or the school board a range of opinions, and say these are the sticking points. These are the things that are going to get some parents and students upset."

Two members of Livesay's council, however, said that they prefer that the meetings be closed, referring to sensitive material relayed to them about investigations into gangs, sex offenders and other crime.

"People who had some run-ins, some problems with the police, would come in for no other reason," said Vivian C. Bailey, a Wilde Lake activist and member of the council. "It's a way for people with grievances to express them, but they have no interest in coming up with policies or giving advice on policies."

Livesay said that he never provides the council with information that could jeopardize an investigation, but he does discuss details of ongoing investigations.

State law allows the council's president to call closed sessions to discuss active criminal investigations, but the council would have to vote to do so, and then notify the public that it's doing so. A justification for the closing would need to be included in the minutes. Once that discussion ended, the council's president would need to open the meeting.

Montgomery County's advisory groups are tailored to minorities, said Capt. James Fenner Jr. There is one for blacks, Asians and Hispanics, but anyone can attend. Police Chief Thomas Manger appoints members to the panels, with which he meets monthly.

Anne Arundel County has an advisory council for each of four districts in the county, said Lt. David Waltemeyer, a spokesman for the Anne Arundel County Police Department. The councils meet monthly, and leaders from those councils meet quarterly with countywide commanders. The chief doesn't appoint the members. Most members are leaders in neighborhood associations, Waltemeyer said.

In Howard County, where the school panel's membership pulls heavily from PTAs, Giles seeks to avoid conflict. Parents can e-mail her or speak with her after a meeting, but she doesn't give nonmembers a microphone.

"I can't imagine the police are going to get stampeded with people," Giles said. "Of course, if you're discussing a hot topic, you're going to get a lot of people, but in general, our Police Department is well-run."

melissa.harris@baltsun.com

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