The public's business

Our view: Maryland's law on open meetings needs to be strengthened

November 21, 2008

The public's business should be conducted in public. And the use of Maryland State Police helicopters to ferry accident victims to trauma centers surely is the public's business. But when a team of experts gathers next week to review state policies on when to fly an accident victim to a hospital, the panel will meet for half a day behind closed doors.

This is yet another example of Maryland law's failure to deliver on its promise of open, transparent government, a cornerstone of democracy. State lawyers say the panel isn't a public body and doesn't have to meet in public at all. That may fit the letter of the law, but not its spirit.

The Maryland Institute of Emergency Medical Services Systems, the state agency that oversees the network of ambulances and trauma centers across Maryland, decided to convene the expert panel after September's state police helicopter crash in which four people were killed. The crash raised questions about the criteria used to determine if an accident victim would be flown or taken by ambulance to a trauma center. Those concerns were aggravated by statistics showing that more than 35 percent of flown patients are released from a trauma center within 24 hours and by the planned multimillion-dollar expense of replacing the state's helicopter fleet.

Despite the state police's stellar safety record, the scrutiny prompted MIEMSS to convene a panel of trauma and emergency medical specialists for two days with the narrow focus of reviewing state protocols and use of helicopters to transport accident patients from the scene. That was the right call to assure Marylanders that this vital service is run efficiently, effectively and safely. The panel is to meet Monday in a public session to take testimony and hear from witnesses and then adjourn to decide on recommendations and write a report. The panel is to reconvene the next day in a public meeting to presents its findings and take questions.

Dels. Shane Pendergass and Dan K. Morhaim have complained about the closed work session. After consulting with its lawyers, MIEMSS officials decided to move ahead with the open portion of the meeting but allow panel members time alone to confer and write their report.

The panel's decision didn't go far enough, but the episode illustrates the need to strengthen Maryland's open meetings law, which is well intentioned but riddled with exceptions. That should be on the lawmakers' to-do list this January.

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