Schaefer, Curran split on need for open meetings bill


ANNAPOLIS -- Maryland's governor and its attorney general sharply split yesterday over the need to strengthen Maryland's open meetings law.

Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. broadly endorsed a bill that would eliminate or clarify exemptions in the law so governmental bodies could not use them as loopholes to close meetings that should be open to the public.

The bill also would establish an unpaid, three-member Open Meetings Law Compliance Board to arbitrate disputes over whether specificgovernmental meetings may be legally closed to the public and the news media. And it would impose, for the first time, a civil penalty of up to $100 for any member of a government body who "knowingly and willfully" violates the law.

Mr. Curran said the board would provide non-binding opinions that "would be fast, easy and of no cost to the state," and that would save citizens or news organizations the considerable expense of challenging a closed meeting in court.

But a legislative aide to Gov. William Donald Schaefer told the Senate Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee that while Governor Schaefer was "without question in favor of open meetings," the governor saw no need for the bill. Bruce P. Martin said Mr. Schaefer even opposes creation of the proposed Compliance Board, a position the bill's most ardent opponents have not taken.

"The bill seeks to solve a problem that isn't there," Mr. Martin said, echoing a position long held by representatives of the state's counties and municipalities.

However, a string of newspaper editors from across the state recounted various abuses of the existing law: a University of Maryland Board of Regents meeting on a possible tuition increase that was closed; meetings of the governor's Off-Track Betting Task Force; its "2020" commission on growth in the Chesapeake Bay region; the Linowes tax commission that closed all meetings to public scrutiny; and the Montgomery County town of Poolesville, whose elected officials have so frequently circumvented the existing open meetings statute that one Poolesville resident called it "the shining black-eye example of how 'broke' this law is."

Many of the editors warned the committee that unless something was done to discourage governmental bodies from deciding public policy in private, citizens would continue to lose faith in their elected officials.

"This bill," said James I. Houck, managing editor of The Sun, "could just as accurately be called the 'Public Confidence in Government Act.' "

During the four-hour hearing, officials representing the Maryland Association of Counties and the Maryland Municipal League detailed their continued opposition to several key changes from current law, including:

* A provision that would clarify that any public body "granting a license or permit or making a land-use decision" is required to meet in public, unless the meeting is legally closed under one of the bill's 13 permitted exceptions.

Jon Burrell, the Municipal League's executive director, said including quasi-judicial functions such as zoning appeals boards under the open meetings law would have "a chilling effect in a small town where everybody knows everybody."

The term "land use," added Julia Irons of MACO, could be misinterpreted to include land acquisition activities, a proprietary action of government bodies specifically permitted to be conducted in private in another part of the bill.

* A provision that would allow the release of the minutes taken during meetings that were legally closed to the public and the news media.

Several witnesses said they feared such disclosure could jeopardize future actions by the government body, such as land purchases, if previous private discusses were suddenly made public.

* The deletion of a catchall exemption that says any governmental body may legally close a meeting for any "compelling reason" as long as at least two-thirds of the members vote to do so.

The bill's opponents said the catchall exemption is needed in case the bill's other 13 exemptions do not cover some unanticipated situation. But the news organizations that have lobbied for well over a year to strengthen the open meetings law claim the catchall exemption is such a gaping loophole that it would make all the other changes meaningless.

They also opposed the civil fine of up to $100.

The bill's leading spokesman on the committee, Sen. Gerald W. Winegrad, D-Anne Arundel, called the proposed penalty "a very soft sanction."

He said it was less onerous than the penalties in many other states, and likened it to the $50 fine that can be assessed against people caught in Maryland smoking on elevators.

But Mr. Martin, Ms. Irons and Mr. Burrell all opposed it either as unnecessary or as a factor that would make it harder to get volunteers on governmental boards.

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