BDC aims to protect secrecy

Open-meetings rule to have little effect, chairman suggests

November 15, 2006|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,Sun reporter

Though Maryland's highest court ruled this month that the Baltimore Development Corp. should open its books and meetings like any other government entity, top officials at the notoriously secretive economic development arm say that the ruling might not force the agency to reveal much at all.

BDC President M.J. "Jay" Brodie estimated that nearly everything his organization does - assembling swaths of property for redevelopment, deciding who wins lucrative development contracts, and distributing subsidies and tax breaks - will remain private.

"Ninety percent of what we do," Brodie said, "is probably exempt."

And probably is the operative word - with state open-meetings laws that leave much open for interpretation and officials at the BDC, which has operated almost entirely behind closed doors since its inception in 1991, less than certain about how exactly to handle the new requirements.

As the agency's board gathers tomorrow morning for its first meeting as a public body, people who want to attend the 7:30 a.m. session at the agency's 36 S. Charles St. headquarters might find themselves spending more time in the lobby than the conference room. This week BDC officials weren't even sure if they were allowed to release the agenda, let alone let folks listen in as they discuss the various matters.

BDC board Chairman Arnold L. Williams, who will lead the board as it decides whether to open or close the sessions, said he plans to err on the side of openness. But he will also protectively guard "proprietary" financial data or any information that could threaten the agency's deals in progress.

"If we can [be open] and we can protect the deal, which to me is very important for the citizens of Baltimore, we'll do it," Williams said.

In a Nov. 3 ruling, Maryland's Court of Appeals declared the BDC a regular "public body," subject to open-meetings and public-information laws. The decision capped a battle begun in 2004, when the owners of nine businesses slated to be seized for the BDC's huge west-side redevelopment project called "the superblock" sued the agency. The property owners said that the agency, operated as a "quasi-public" organization, refused to let them into meetings or show them development proposals for the site.

Edwin F. Hale Sr., chairman of the Baltimore Area Convention & Visitors Association board, another of the city's quasi-public agencies, said the BDC court decision is a clear message that BACVA, too, has to open up - and he promises that it will.

"There's nothing we're talking about that we couldn't say in the light of day," Hale said. "Whatever is going to come out is going to come out."

Although the BDC is now public, there are 14 exceptions to the state's open meetings rules, which seek to ensure that government bodies handle their decision-making in public. Exceptions that could apply to the BDC include one for discussions about acquisition of real property and another for proposals for a business or industrial organization to locate, expand or remain in the state.

If a public body wishes to privately discuss an exempted topic, members must state that in an open meeting and then vote to close the session.

"We'll acquaint ourselves with the exemptions," Brodie said. "We're going to follow the law. That's the law."

BDC board member Clarence T. Bishop, who is Mayor Martin O'Malley's chief of staff, said he would keep proprietary financial information and personnel issues secret. Almost everything else could be fair game, he guessed - although he said he worries about fallout from releasing certain things, like too many details about proposals under consideration for a project.

"The problem is that it sets out the deals on the table for everyone else to see," Bishop said. "I'm just a little hesitant that it's not as good an idea to do that as we might want it to be."

Board member Deborah Hunt Devan, the principal at the Baltimore law firm of Neuberger, Quinn, Gielen, Rubin & Gibber, said there's no way to decide in advance what types of discussions will be open - even if that means releasing information about certain deals but not others.

"The wisest choice is to deal with the facts as they arise," she said.

Jack Schwartz, an assistant attorney general who advises the state's Open Meetings Law Compliance Board, said exactly how the BDC will be able to work within the state's "significant loopholes" has yet to be determined. As the issues get hashed out, he expects to see challenges to the BDC's interpretations of "public" and "private."

"That's how I assume some of these issues will play out," he said.

Open-government advocates like Greg Leroy, who founded Good Jobs First, a Washington nonprofit group that has surveyed the accessibility of economic development agencies across the country, thinks the BDC is already trying to duck its mandate for openness.

"Sounds like [they're] really going to resist the decision," he said. "That sounds to me like [someone] should really go toe-to-toe with them."

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