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Violation of 'sunshine' law possible


A late-night conference call Wednesday among County Council members to patch up budget problems may have violated the state open meetings law.

During the call, the seven members and their auditor discussed changes -- which they adopted in a perfunctory public session yesterday -- to the county's $950 million spending plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Several council members said the conference call was unavoidable as the council and aides to County Executive John G. Gary raced to resolve "technical" problems with the budget approved last Friday.

"I think it was called for," said Councilman James "Ed" DeGrange, a Glen Burnie Democrat. "Things were happening so fast."

The attorney general's chief counsel for opinions and advice said yesterday that conference calls involving a majority of a deliberative panel, such as a county council, are governed by the open meetings law. Jack Schwartz said the law also requires notice of such meetings and that minutes be kept.

Mr. Schwartz said officials can be fined up to $100 for knowingly and willing participating in an illegal meeting. The public can report potential violations to the state Open Meetings Compliance Board at 576-6327.

Deborah Povich, executive director of Common Cause/Maryland, a nonprofit advocate for stronger ethics in government, said the state's open meetings, or "sunshine," law is meant to ensure that debate over public policy is conducted in public.

"I would be very concerned by a conference call that involved the entire County Council and was held without public notice," Ms. Povich said. "I don't know how the public would even get access to a conference call."

Council President Diane R. Evans, an Arnold Republican, was upset yesterday afternoon when she learned of the possible violation.

"You mean we can't talk to each other on the telephone?" Mrs. Evans said. "I knew that we could not physically meet together. If [a conference call] is a violation, I'm certainly not aware of it."

Mrs. Evans said she and the rest of the council have taken pains to make sure that all members participate in every debate.

"The open meetings law . . . is trying to preclude small blocks from trying to ramrod things through," she said. "If we were doing things purposely to shut people out, then I can see where there would be a problem."

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