It's still a duck

March 12, 2006

As an agency that does the public's business, operates with public funds and reports to a board dominated by mayoral nominees, the Baltimore Development Corp. could have acknowledged its responsibility as a public entity and conducted its business more openly. That would have been the right thing to do. Instead, the city's development arm last week chose to challenge an appeals court ruling that dismissed its claim to privacy because it is a nonprofit organization. Shame, shame.

The BDC (represented by the city's top public lawyer and at public expense) has asked the state's highest court to review a Court of Special Appeals ruling that would force the agency to adhere to state open meetings and public information laws. But the BDC, through its lawyer, argues that neither law can be applied to the agency because it isn't a public body as defined in either law. If that's true, it's just one more reason why Maryland's public access laws should be reformed.

The Court of Appeals should accept the city's petition and address, once and for all, whether quasi-public agencies that conduct government business are in fact public entities and subject to the state's sunshine laws. There are plenty of other examples in Maryland of government using nonprofit groups to conduct the public's work, some of it sensitive. All should be open to public scrutiny.

At least four counties - Anne Arundel, Howard, Prince George's and Charles - have economic development arms that operate as private, nonprofit agencies. The state's Maryland Technology Development Corp., Maryland Economic Development Corp. and Bainbridge Development Corp. also are quasi-publics.

If the Court of Appeals rejects the case, then only the BDC will have to open its decision-making process to greater public scrutiny because the lower court ruling applied solely to the city agency. But the Court of Appeals has an opportunity to shine a wider spotlight on a process that has become institutionalized and has kept the public in the shadows for too long.

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