Open-meetings measure arrives for House panel's consideration


ANNAPOLIS -- A coalition of newspaper and broadcast organizations appealed to a House committee yesterday to strengthen Maryland's open meetings law, but the chairwoman of the panel said she was uncertain how effectively backers had made their case for change.

Delegate Anne S. Perkins, D-Baltimore, chairwoman of the Constitutional and Administrative Law Committee, said her committee had never considered legislation involving the open meetings law. As a result, she said, members were unfamiliar with the extent to which the present law had been circumvented.

A lengthy hearing yesterday on a bill studied all last summer and fall by a Senate subcommittee, and approved 45-2 by the full Senate last week, provided the House panel with only isolated examples of abuses, she said, and with very little testimony from the public.

Ms. Perkins said there was no way her committee could bring the issue to a vote before next week, even though that will be the last full week of the 1991 General Assembly session. She said she intended to appoint a work group to review the Senate bill.

"I know a number of instances were brought up today, but whether they go to violations of existing law, or whether they go to loopholes, or what those problems were, I don't know," she said after the hearing. "Even after a hearing that went on for five hours, there are still gaps in our knowledge about what the problems are."

Delegate Carol S. Petzold, D-Montgomery, a committee member, said the bill was "not an automatic pass in this committee," but "there's a lot of merit in reimpressing on all public officials the need to open public meetings."

Delegate J. Anita Stup, D-Frederick, a freshman member, said she, too, thought the bill would pass, but not until after the committee "fine-tunes it."

The bill, being pushed by a coalition called the Maryland Media Confederation, which includes The Sun, the Annapolis Capital, the Washington Post, WBAL television and radio, and other Maryland news organizations, would establish a three-member Open Meetings Compliance Board.

The board would render quick and inexpensive advisory opinions on whether governmental meetings should be, or should have been, kept open to the public and news media.

Proponents argue that under current law, the only recourse for protesting a closed meeting is the expensive process of taking the case to court.

The Senate bill also would establish for the first time in Maryland law a civil fine of up to $100 against anyone who "knowingly and willfully" violates the open-meetings law.

The measure also would tighten the wording of several of the 14 exemptions in the current law that permit meetings to be closed, but which backers of the bill contend have been used as loopholes to close meetings that should have remained open. Among them are provisions that permit meetings to be closed to discuss legal matters with counsel, or to discuss security matters.

The 14th exemption, a catch-all that permits any meeting to be closed by a vote of two-thirds of the members of the governmental body, also would be abolished.

The bill has been backed by Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., Common Cause of Maryland and a consumers organization, Maryland Citizens' Action Coalition.

Opposition yesterday came from the same three levels of government that have opposed it at every stage of the process: the governor's office, the Maryland Association of Counties and the Maryland Municipal League.

Repeating arguments made in the Senate, representatives of all three said there was not enough evidence of repeated abuses to justify such a comprehensive revision of the law. They also oppose the proposed civil penalty, a provision that would force open all meetings involving land-use and licensing decisions.

An aide to Gov. William Donald Schaefer said he even opposed the proposed compliance board, contending that it would result in more red tape and delay decision-making.

A couple of committee members, following up on a proposal first suggested by House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., D-Kent, asked backers if editorial boards of newspapers should also be forced to hold open meetings because they affect public policy.

Tom Marquardt, managing editor of the Capital in Annapolis and president of the Media Confederation, pointed out that the bill involves public bodies, not private ones such as newspapers.

If private companies such as newspapers must open their meetings, then maybe bank boards, electric companies or other private concerns should do likewise, he suggested.

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