In apparent violation of the state open meetings law, four of seven Anne Arundel County Council members met privately Monday to discuss the pending budget for next year.
Council Chairman Daniel E. Klosterman Jr. defended yesterday his decision to call the meeting, saying he wanted to bring colleagues up to speed on the 2000-2001 budget, which is scheduled for a final vote tomorrow.
"It's one thing if you're sitting there trying to corner votes," said Klosterman, a Millersville Democrat. "All we talked about was an update on where we are in the budget."
But the discussion went beyond procedural matters, Klosterman said. It also touched on specific proposals -- a new library in Crofton, sound barriers on U.S. 50, improvements to Marley Middle School -- that the council may ask County Executive Janet S. Owens to add to her $1 billion spending plan, he said. The group also discussed a pending pay raise for the county's 1,000 blue-collar workers.
State law forbids bodies such as the council from engaging in the "consideration or transaction of public business" behind closed doors if a quorum exists. On the council, four members make a quorum, meaning no more than three can meet privately to discuss county business.
"Voting is not the only way of conducting or transacting business; it's the whole preparation of the budget," said Kimberly Ward, an assistant attorney general who advises the Maryland Open Meetings Compliance Board.
Ward, speaking generally, added: "It's the discussion that the General Assembly wants to be open. They want people to see how government conducts itself."
In addition, the county charter specifies that all meetings be open to the public. There is no penalty for violating either the charter or the state law.
One council member who was present, Crofton Republican John J. Klocko III, said he does not think the meeting violated the law.
"There was no consideration of business and nothing was decided," he said, adding that it is common for three members to be talking when a fourth walks up to the group.
The two other members in Monday's meeting are Vice Chairwoman Shirley Murphy, a Pasadena Democrat and Barbara D. Samorajczyk, an Annapolis Democrat.
The library that Klocko has been pushing for years would be built in his district, the sound barriers in Samorajczyk's. Marley Middle is in Murphy's district. Murphy and Samorajczyk could not be reached for this article yesterday.
"You just have to sort of shake your head and wonder why would they subject themselves to the inevitable criticism when they know better," said Kathleen S. Skullney, executive director of Common Cause/Maryland.
"The whole point of the law, just like ethics laws, is that the public has a right to hold its government accountable," she said. "Pure and simple."
Klosterman described the session as impromptu, attended by those who happened to be at the Arundel Center on Monday.
"I wanted to bring everybody up to date on what was going on so I grabbed some members [Monday], and I'm going to talk others [today]," he said. Explaining why he met with some and not others, he said, "We just couldn't get everybody in."
Klosterman said he was careful not to plot strategy at the meeting, to quiz the other members on their positions or to try to sway them.
"I didn't ask them what their [budget] amendments are. I didn't ask them to tell me what they were thinking," he said. "I just said this is how I see it, [and] if you see it any different we'll deal with it on Thursday."
The way he sees the budget, he said, is that a handful of proposals left out of Owens' original budget are likely to be "contentious." Heading the list is a new $7.4 million library for Crofton. It may be possible, he said, to find money to begin building the library next year, along with a regional library in nearby Odenton.
Far from trying to veil deliberations, the meeting was intended to make sure no one was kept in the dark, Klosterman said.
"That way, everyone is involved, and no one will say, 'You're striking a deal,' " he said. "The goal is to get everyone procedurally on board and give an overview. Everybody has got to do their own thing."