An aide to Gov. William Donald Schaefer told a legislative committee this week the governor favors open meetings -- as long as they're not too open. That was the lame excuse offered for the administration's opposition to a bill closing gaping loopholes in Maryland's weak open meetings law. Without such changes, the press and public will continue to have the doors shut in their faces when government panels conduct important business.
"This bill seeks to solve a problem which isn't there," asserted gubernatorial aide Bruce P. Martin. Oh really? What about those closed-door meetings of the University of Maryland regents? Or the private sessions of the governor's off-track betting task force? Or the secret meeting of the governor's growth-control commission? Or the closed-door sessions of the Linowes commission on tax reform?
In each instance, the press and public had every right to witness democracy in action. Yet in each instance, admission was denied. Officials used loopholes in the existing open meetings law to shut out the public. Is that what the governor wants to have happen?
Mr. Schaefer's aide was the only person supporting the current law. Even the two most vocal foes of a much-stronger open meetings statute, the Maryland Municipal League and the Maryland Association of Counties, agree with some of the proposed revisions. And Attorney General J. Joseph Curran came out strongly in favor of a much-improved open meetings statute.
The proposed bill would repeal a catch-all phrase that lets public panels close their doors for any "compelling reason." It also would limit times when a panel can meet in private with attorneys. And it would set up a compliance board to resolve disputes and give quick guidance to state and local bodies about holding closed meetings.
These are sensible revisions. Maryland now has one of the weakest open meetings laws in the nation. It is being abused by a growing number of panels. This gives office holders, including Mr. Schaefer, a bad public image. If officials have nothing to hide, they should fling open their doors to the public. Legislators certainly should have no qualms about forcing government groups to do what they already do -- conduct their proceedings in full view of the public. The more light that shines in on government activities, the more confidence citizens will have in their elected and appointed officials.