Legislators urged to ease provision on open meetings


ANNAPOLIS -- Efforts to reform Maryland's open meetings law will be meaningless unless the state repeals broad language that allows governmental bodies to meet privately when they see a "compelling" reason to do so, news industry representatives said yesterday.

"If that stays in, it negates everything else we're doing here," James S. Keat, an assistant managing editor of The Sun, told members of a Senate subcommittee studying possible revisions in the 13-year-old law.

But representatives of local governments said they believe the clause is needed to make sure officials are not forced to air matters that should be confidential. "We're uncomfortable with taking it out," said Julia Irons of the Maryland Association of Counties.

For the past three months, a subcommittee of the Senate's Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee has been studying a proposal to limit the reasons that governmental meetings may be closed to the public and the news media.

The Maryland Media Confederation, a coalition of newspaper, television and radio executives, has argued that some officials routinely abuse the reasons allowed in the current law -- closing meetings, for instance, to discuss "personnel matters" and then remaining in closed session as other actions are considered.

But the media coalition's efforts have met stiff opposition from groups such as MACO and the Maryland Municipal League, which argue that a wholesale revision of the law is not warranted.

Besides stating specific circumstances when meetings may be closed, the law allows government panels to hold closed sessions if they decide, by two-thirds vote, that there is a compelling reason for secrecy.

Sen. Gerald W. Winegrad, D-Anne Arundel, the co-chairman of the subcommittee, asked MACO officials yesterday if they could offer an example showing the need for the clause. They said they could not immediately think of one.

But Bruce Martin, an aide to Gov. William Donald Schaefer, said that doesn't mean the clause is not necessary. "Our minds may not be fertile enough to think of a reason now," Mr. Martin said, adding that unforeseen situations could nonetheless arise.

Afterward, Mr. Martin said the governor's office has not yet taken a formal position on any of the proposed changes. "But as a general matter, we find ourselves agreeing with much of what the local governments have been saying," Mr. Martin said. "We're not sure a case has been made that [the current law] is broken and needs to be fixed."

Mr. Winegrad's subcommittee took no votes yesterday and made no decisions. But Mr. Winegrad urged representatives of the media and government groups to try to find areas where they can agree. He asked them to report back to the subcommittee at its next meeting Oct. 16.

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