Law helped open meetings

Statute changes, precedent end advisory panel's closed sessions

December 02, 2005|By MELISSA HARRIS | MELISSA HARRIS,SUN REPORTER

Police Chief Wayne Livesay took two factors into consideration before deciding this week to open meetings of his advisory council to the public: State law now requires it, and his predecessor, County Executive James N. Robey, told him that he never considered the meetings closed during his 11-year tenure in the job.

"There has been a misunderstanding over the past few years," said Victoria Goodman, Robey's spokeswoman. Livesay "thought he was in line with what his predecessor had done."

As a result of this week's announcement, the 23-member council's meetings will be open to anyone and information about them posted in advance. Minutes also will be published in compliance with Maryland's recently strengthened "sunshine" laws. The first such meeting will be held Wednesday.

A Sun report in October first questioned the legality of the invitation-only meetings, during which members discuss everything from the Police Department's racial-profiling policies to budget requests. Subsequently, Phil Marcus, a Columbia Association board member, filed a complaint with the state's three-member board that monitors compliance with the Open Meetings Act.

Last year, the General Assembly broadened the law. It now covers advisory groups that are created by department heads, such as planning and zoning directors, and police and fire chiefs.

"I was not aware of a change in the law, and I never meant to exclude anyone," Livesay said yesterday.

Livesay's decision puts his council's policies in line with other police departments and school districts in the region. It is unclear, however, whether opening the meetings will change the group's effectiveness or the candor of its discussions, said Bill Volenick, an advisory council member

"Council members go through the citizens' policy academy, go on ride-alongs with officers and assist with sobriety checkpoints, all of which puts us in a position to understand the workings of the department," he said. "I fear people will bring up complaints that have nothing to do with the purpose of the council, and that we'll be overwhelmed with one-person issues. But time will tell. We'll have to wait and see."

Marcus, whose own board has been criticized for secrecy, said that he was pleased with the chief's decision, which avoided formal and costly hearings before Maryland's Open Meetings Compliance Board.

Marcus said he also "regretted" that he would not be able to attend the council's first public meeting because he has two other Columbia Association meetings to attend that night.

Wednesday's 7:30 p.m. meeting will be held at police headquarters, 3410 Courthouse Drive in Ellicott City. Future meetings will be posted on www.co.ho.md.us. The department also is recruiting new members for the council.

Information: Lt. John Newnan 410-313-2203.

melissa.harris@baltsun.com

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