Council meets privately for advice on meeting publicly
The County Council went into a closed session for 26 minutes last week to learn how to conduct business in public.
Two days later, officials from other counties met publicly with the press and an assistant state attorney general in Annapolis -- also to talk about how to implement the state's new open-meetings law. The law takes effect Wednesday.
After years of deciding liquor and piecemeal zoning cases behind closed doors, the council is skittish about what will happen when it goes public Wednesday.
What the crowd in Annapolis learned is that public bodies can still closet themselves if one of 14 conditions exist. But if there is doubt as to whether one of the conditions applies, public bodies should err on the side of openness. Even if one of the 14 conditions does exist, public bodies still can meet publicly, the law says.
One of the conditions under which public bodies can close meetings, however, is to get legal advice. The council has received legal advice both publicly and privately. It met publicly when getting legal advice from former U.S. Attorney General Benjamin R. Civiletti about redistricting. It met privately when getting legal advice about how to comply with the open-meetings law.
Meeting in private to talk about meeting in public is understandable. Talking in public can be tough. Several years ago, council members were embroiled in a post-midnight session on the budget, when one of them yelled across the table to a reporter, "Why don't you go home! I am so tired of having to watch what I say!" It was a rare moment of candor.
Behind closed doors, council members can reject a zoning petition or turn down a liquor license because they think the petitioners or the petitioners' relatives, employees or partners may be untrustworthy. But if council members voice those opinions publicly, they will have to support those opinions with evidence.
When public bodies meet privately under the new law, they must say why. They must give a specific reason for secrecy and must limit their private discussion solely to that matter.
In order to meet privately, public bodies must first open their meeting in public and vote to go private. They must go public again when the private discussion is concluded. Minutes of the next meeting must indicate who voted to close the meeting, the reason for closing it, the names of the persons present during the closed meeting, the topics discussed, and what action was taken.
The purpose of the new law, reporters and public officials were told in last week's public meeting in Annapolis, is to help make governmental bodies more accountable and effective, and to help build public trust and confidence.
That, hopefully, is the same message the council received in its closed-door meeting last Tuesday.
James M. Coram
Enjoying the eats
The crowd attending the dedication ceremony at tiny Tiber Park in downtown Ellicott City last week seemed reluctant to leave.
"We ought to do this more often," people were saying to one another.
They were not talking about the speeches. Those were mercifully short. They were talking about the "mini-taste" of Ellicott City provided by 11 of the town's eateries.
An awning was set up at the Tiber Alley end of the park where passers-by could gather to share gourmet canapes, gazpacho, chicken-wings, duck-ka-bobs and two kinds of pizza, then wash it down with lemonade or iced tea.
To the left of the awning, people gathered around park benches and a picnic table to sample an assortment of homemade cookies, cakes, brownies and tarts.
On this day, it was free.
One person said it would be a great weekend promotion for the city even if it were not free -- suggesting that merchants use the park once a month or more to provide the kind of outdoor buffet offered last week and tie it in with sales at various Ellicott City shops. Someone else said it would never happen because it would take too much organization and customers would become frustrated trying to find a place to park.
Those who do find parking places may find Tiber Park a godsend -- a resting place between Main Street and Tiber Alley where they can sit and catch their breath after a long walk.
There are wooden benches on the Main street side, and wooden benches and a large, ornate picnic table on the Tiber Alley side. Connecting the two is a footbridge across the Tiber Branch of the Patapsco River.
For the record, the park cost $112,492, with the state chipping in $5,000.
As soon as the dedication crowd left Thursday -- most stayed for more than an hour -- people started filling the benches and the footbridge. They were so casual and nonchalant that you would have thought they had been stopping there for years.
James M. Coram