State BRAC group is ready to go

Big decisions lie ahead, but closed meetings make some uneasy

May 30, 2007|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Sun reporter

After months of preparation, the O'Malley administration is poised to start hammering out its plan for handling an expected surge of defense workers and their families into Maryland - a boom that could strain the state's cash-strapped budget to deal with the jammed highways, crowded schools and housing shortage the influx will likely aggravate.

The stakes are high - with officials already identifying some $16 billion worth of highway and transit improvements needed to handle the projected growth in traffic.

Don't expect to watch the state's military growth plan get put together, though. Except for opening remarks by state and local officials at meetings to be held today and through the summer and fall, all the deliberations of the governor's Base Realignment and Closure Subcabinet will take place behind closed doors.

Local officials will get a chance to present their communities' needs in public to the group of eight Cabinet secretaries, the state schools superintendent and Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, said Samantha Kappalman, press secretary to Brown. Brown is coordinating the administration's base-realignment planning.

But discussions among Cabinet members and their staffs about those needs and how to pay for them "will be private," Kappalman said.

"It's like the governor's Cabinet meetings, and Cabinet meetings are closed," Kappalman added.

The base-realignment sub-Cabinet was created by the General Assembly this year at Gov. Martin O'Malley's request to coordinate planning statewide for the expected influx of 45,000 to 60,000 civilian and military jobs into Maryland as a result of the Pentagon's nationwide base reshuffling. Most of the state's new jobs will wind up at or near Aberdeen Proving Ground in Harford County and Fort Meade in Anne Arundel County - which is also undergoing an expansion of the National Security Agency located on the base.

In addition to Brown and the state superintendent of schools, the subCabinet consists of the secretaries of budget and management; business and economic development; environment; higher education; housing and community development; labor, licensing and regulation; planning; and transportation.

Normally, task forces and commissions created by the legislature would be legally required to conduct open meetings, said Jack Schwartz, an assistant attorney general. But the governor's Cabinet is specifically exempted from the state's open meetings law, he noted, and because this planning group is made up almost entirely of Cabinet members, it would be entitled to close sessions to the public.

Brown's spokeswoman maintained that the public will have ample input via local and regional task forces that have been holding open meetings.

And the sub-Cabinet plans to release a draft plan by early November, which would then be circulated for public hearings and comment before being finalized, she said. The number and locations of those sessions are to be determined when the sub-Cabinet meets today in Annapolis to organize its work, Kappalman said.

The Cabinet group's plan is expected to lay out a laundry list of pricey projects and initiatives to accommodate the growth.

One growth-management activist questioned the decision to deliberate in private.

"It's always a concern when meetings are happening behind closed doors, especially on an issue that's so critical," said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of 1000 Friends of Maryland.

"I'm hoping that this is a single time for organizational purposes," she added, "and that these meetings actually in the future involve a lot more public notice, public input and discussion because it's a huge, huge challenge. There should be a lot of people at the table."

Others, however, seemed unperturbed, for now.

"That's their call," said Robert Leib, special assistant to Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold. "They've got some big issues [to deal with]. I can understand."

But Leib, who is helping coordinate the county's planning for Fort Meade's growth, said all meetings of the county and regional task forces have been and will be open to the public.

tim.wheeler@baltsun.com

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