He's teaching the school board a lesson

Allen Dyer won't give up his quixotic open-meetings lawsuit

March 26, 2006|By TRICIA BISHOP | TRICIA BISHOP,SUN REPORTER

Out in the wilds of western Howard County, where wide-open spaces can still be found, a brownish house is tucked behind its neighbors, far from the street. Its remote location allows its owner to keep his land as he keeps his beard: unapologetically unkempt.

Inside, an old campaign flier hangs over a door frame. Hand-made steel pot hangers and flatware rest on a kitchen island. Boxes and blacksmithing gear, hundreds of math books and computer parts, overwhelm the basement.

There's no counter uncluttered or wall bare. Still, it's an ordered chaos, much like its creator, a man whose legend has grown along with his collections and his lawn. This is Allen Dyer's lair.

Dyer has earned distinction in this affluent county - among the nation's richest and best-educated - as a perpetual thorn in the board of education's side. He has questioned its methods and its means. And, most famously, he has questioned its compliance with open-government laws.

In so doing, this 58-year-old husband and father of two - a former forward air-controller in the U.S. Air Force and lawyer-turned-computer consultant - has become something of a folk hero for some.

"I see Allen as a champion of people's rights," said Melody Higgins, a disciple in his mission to shine a light on government proceedings. "A lot of people think he's not like your typical Howard County citizen, but I'd rather have Allen Dyer on my side than a lot of people."

In November 2000, Dyer sued the Howard County Board of Education in Circuit Court for what he said were multiple violations of the state's Open Meetings Act, legislation intended to ensure that public business gets done, for the most part, in public.

He has yet to get any official relief or even a ruling on the merits of his case. And all but one of the board members he sued have since left their posts or served out their terms. His lawsuit has been delayed, tossed out, appealed, made fun of and technically mishandled. Yet it rages on, because Dyer won't give up.

"He's a bear when he's working on something. He is absolutely focused and will not be dissuaded or distracted," said Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a Howard County Democrat and former county executive, who introduced a bill - now law - to strengthen enforcement of the Open Meetings Act based on Dyer's lawsuit.

Bobo also got legislation passed that temporarily limited the right of the Howard school board to hold certain private meetings. The board has since amended its ways, bending over backward to make its operations known, though former members have also said that there was nothing wrong with their original practices.

Even the state's Open Meetings Compliance Board, which investigates complaints and issues advisory opinions, has clarified its procedures because of Dyer's efforts.

"There's always a danger that people in power grow smug, they grow self-satisfied, they assume they know what's best, and the Open Meetings Act is an important corrective. ... It's important to have open meetings watchdogs," said Jack Schwartz, an assistant attorney general who counsels the compliance board. "Zealous advocacy for the public interest is also important, and that's what [Dyer] does."

All the accolades and peripheral accomplishments are almost beside the point for Dyer, though. He and his co-counsel partner - Harold H. "Howdy" Burns Jr. - have spent thousands of dollars and hours litigating his case, had their sanity questioned and relationships strained.

But Dyer won't rest until he gets some answers in the form of a published court opinion addressing some 30 questions, many multi-part, that could change the way Maryland's government does business.

His questions, all of which grew from his perceptions of board behavior, ask in part whether the works of government are public domain or somehow copyrighted; when and how a body may exercise its legislative authority, and what role e-mail communications play in all of it.

If he can get those answered by a court in a reported opinion, then all public bodies in Maryland "will have official guidance in areas that are currently `grey,'" Dyer said.

"It's not that the Howard County Board of Education is some awful board of education. They're kind of run of the mill. It's the government process in the state; it's too closed," Dyer said. "If we don't watch our government, then we lose. There's this assumption that everything is fine, and it's not. It never is."

It's a philosophy inextricable from the man, who came by it after many years of trial and error, butting heads with those in power and learning the hard way that nothing worth having comes easy.

"Life isn't supposed to be easy - if it is, you're probably doing something wrong," he said with a chuckle.

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