Anne Arundel County Council members broke the state "open meetings" law last week when they held a late-night conference call to discuss the budget. The law sets strict standards by which a decision-making government panel can conduct public business in private. In this case, those standards were violated.
The mistake by all seven council members is serious. It shows that this council may be a bit too comfortable with the notion of handling business like some private board. The open meetings law, known as the "sunshine" law, says that should not happen for this reason: Power is more likely to be abused when it's wielded in darkness. The law acts a "check" against the misuse of power by letting the light of public accountability shine on the activities of public servants.
That is not to say that council members were scheming to shut out the citizenry. Their intentions may have even been good; they were trying to resolve a budget problem quickly. But the rationale of the ends justifying the means doesn't work here.
In deliberating over the budget in private, the council stands atop a slippery slope. This won't be the only time the body finds it convenient to meet privately. People always feel freer to float ideas, to debate and air their differences without an audience and knowing they won't have to answer for their quotes in the next day's newspaper. This new council, which prides itself on bipartisan unity, could find private meetings especially appealing for that reason.
Whether the council is capable of policing itself behind closed doors, of avoiding corruption and using private meetings to get good results for citizens is beside the point. The public has both the right and the need to hear council debate in its entirety. If all voters get at public meetings is a sanitized version, with everything of substance already said and agreed upon, how can they accurately judge their elected officials? They need to know not just end results, but the choices.
The way a few council members reacted when the conference call came to light is even more troubling. Their instinct was to deny that the call took place. They knew they were wrong and wanted to protect themselves from embarrassment. These council members were looking out for themselves. That is exactly what the open meeting law is designed to guard against.