Senate votes 45-2 for stronger bill on open meetings


ANNAPOLIS -- The Senate overwhelmingly approved yesterday a strengthened open-meetings law for Maryland, overriding the objections of the Schaefer administration and local governments.

The bill was approved 45-2, with Sens. Larry E. Haines, R-Carroll, and American Joe Miedusiewski, D-Baltimore, voting in opposition.

The measure now goes to the House of Delegates, where Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., D-Kent, expected it to pass, though not in the same form that it left the Senate.

Mr. Mitchell said he was seriously considering amending the bill so that it would require newspaper editorial boards to open their meetings.

"I think we ought to have a right to do the same thing, to sit in on editorial boards and see how they make their public policy decisions," said Mr. Mitchell.

"What's good for the goose is good for the gander."

The bill is the result of months of work by a Senate subcommittee that sought to strengthen the open-meetings law and close a gaping loophole in the law. The Maryland Media Confederation, a coalition of newspaper and broadcast organizations, spent more than a year lobbying for the revisions.

One major provision in the bill approved yesterday is the elimination of an exemption that allowed agencies to bar the public if two-thirds of the members decided there was a "compelling reason" to do so. Critics argued that exemption virtually allowed agencies to close meetings at any time.

The bill also establishes a three-member Open Meetings Compliance Board to arbitrate disputes over whether specific governmental meetings may be closed to the public and the news media.

Only Gov. William Donald Schaefer's administration opposed creating the board, said Sen. Gerald W. Winegrad, who chaired the subcommittee that fashioned the bill.

"They were against everything in the bill," Senator Winegrad told his colleagues during a committee voting session.

Another provision in the bill provides for a $100 civil penalty against any member of a public body who "knowingly and willfully" participates in a meeting that violates the open-meetings law.

Though the measure passed the Senate yesterday quickly and without debate, it survived a gantlet of amendments earlier in the session.

Senate Minority Leader John A. Cade, R-Anne Arundel, offered an amendment that would have limited public access to meetings where zoning matters were being discussed. Senator Cade's amendment garnered the support of 10 other senators but failed on a vote of 31-11.

Most of the senators voting against the amendment decried any attempt to make public meetings less accessible.

"If you close those discussions to the public, there is bound to be a perception that government is doing something wrong," Sen. Idamae Garrot, D-Montgomery, told her colleagues during Senate debate.

"It's necessary for citizens to be able to scrutinize the decisions of their lawmakers," Senator Garrott argued.

Another amendment, offered by Sen. John A. Pica Jr., D-Baltimore,sought to require Judicial Nominating Commissions to open their meetings to the public.

Senator Winegrad said the commissions were exempt from the law because they dealt with judicial and personnel matters. Senator Pica's amendment was defeated on a vote of 28-19.

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