Closed door sessions bring public mistrust


YOU don't have to worry about this County Council pulling the wool over your eyes. Some Anne Arundel council members prefer shutting the door on you.

That is what happened Monday when four of the county's seven lawmakers met behind closed doors to discuss next year's budget, in apparent violation of the state's open meetings law.

The law prohibits (except under very specific circumstances) meetings outside the public arena when there are enough lawmakers to form a quorum. In the Anne Arundel County Council, four members qualify as a quorum. But the nettlesome state statute was ignored. So was the public.

It seems that history repeats.

In 1995, seven council members participated in a late-night conference call to discuss changes in then-County Executive John G. Gary's budget. The members didn't think it was a big deal. They explained innocently that they simply wanted to straighten out some "technical" problems in the budget before approving the spending plan the next day.

In February, council members skirted around the law when interviewing applicants to replace Cliff Roop after Roop's sudden heart-attack death. They split into pairs to interview most of the applicants -- which was within the law -- before the applicants appeared at a public hearing. Then they voted by secret ballot -- a shady process that they wisely have since abandoned.

Last week, county lawmakers played innocent, like the 1995 council, after they met privately to talk about county business. No big deal, they said. They simply needed to understand some details about County Executive Janet S. Owens' $1.1 billion operating and capital budgets before council approves them. It was just an "update."

Council Chairman Daniel E. Klosterman Jr. described the gathering as an impromptu session attended by colleagues who happened to appear at the Arundel Center.

Vice Chairwoman Shirley Murphy of Pasadena, John J. Klocko III of Crofton and Barbara D. Samorajczyk of Annapolis just happened to be there. Attendees said nothing was decided, no opinions were sought, so nothing was wrong.

But they talked. And among the topics they discussed were budget items in districts represented by Mr. Klocko, Ms. Murphy and Ms. Samorajczyk, according to a story by Sun reporter Scott Calvert.

They talked about the proposed Crofton library, which Mr. Klocko desperately wants for his constituents. The county executive had decided not to provide construction money for the $7.4 million project in her fiscal 2001 budget.

Ms. Murphy wants the county to fund construction of a new Marley Middle School in her district to replace an outdated building that is hot and leaky.

And Ms. Samorajczyk wants the county to build a sound barrier for residents along noisy U.S. 50 in her district.

All three are worthy projects. Worth talking about. Worth public discussion.

The General Assembly strengthened the state's open meetings law in 1991, when distrust of government was running high.

"It's very important that people trust government, trust the executive, trust people on zoning boards, trust us," Anne S. Perkins, then a Baltimore Democratic delegate, said.

Wise words for politicos.

Before the bill passed, public bodies were allowed to close meetings for any reason when two-thirds of members voted to do so. The bill deleted that exemption, and provided for $100 fines for violations.

The law's language is clear. Unless public officials are discussing such issues as personnel matters or legal questions, they cannot meet in a quorum without proper public participation -- not to straighten out technical matters and not to update one another on budget concerns.

Issues such as the Crofton library should include the public. For years, Crofton and Odenton have competed to be the home of Anne Arundel County's next library branch. If elected officials make a deal to build in one of these communities, the populace ought to know how that deal is done. They don't need the door closed in their faces.

Council members know this. They also know that the public's trust is their most important asset. If they squander it, cynicism will rise. People will not buy the innocence act again and again.

Norris West writes editorials for The Sun from Anne Arundel County.

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