Judge rules against lawyer in schools case

THE BALTIMORE SUN

After three years of arguments and legal filings that cost taxpayers nearly $300,000, the Howard County Circuit Court has ruled against Ellicott City lawyer Allen Dyer in an open-meetings violation lawsuit he filed against members of the school board.

"The Plaintiff has failed to prove standing to maintain this [Open Meetings Act] complaint," Judge James B. Dudley wrote in an eight-page opinion sent to the parties yesterday. "Judgment is therefore entered in favor of the Defendants."

Dyer had claimed that being a citizen and a taxpayer gave him grounds to file suit against current board members Sandra H. French, Patricia S. Gordon and James B. O'Donnell, and former board members Jane B. Schuchardt, Stephen C. Bounds, Laura Waters, Virginia Charles and Karen B. Campbell.

But Dudley disagreed, and rendered the ruling without addressing any of Dyer's multiple complaints, which the school board has steadfastly denied.

"The judge is completely wrong in his interpretation of legislative intent," Dyer said, vowing to appeal the decision if he can raise the necessary funds. "I think that when the legislature passed the Open Meetings Act, they intended for it to be enforced by citizens. In my mind, there is no doubt of that."

Dyer's charges against the board - charted in the more than 7,000 documents he entered into evidence since he filed the suit in November 2000 - include allegations that the board repeatedly violated the state's Open Meetings Act by:

Gathering in illegal closed sessions.

Failing to give proper meeting notice.

Neglecting to provide timely records to the public.

Taking actions outside its authority in private.

French, the school board chairman, said members would have been cleared of these accusations if the judge had decided to rule on the specific complaints.

"All along, we've been as open - in fact, many times more open - than legally required," said French, adding that she was glad the case lasted long enough for her to get the chance to testify, which she did in April.

"I really wanted my time in court," French said. "I really personally wanted to have the opportunity to go on record after swearing with my hand on the Bible and tell the truth so that the board's position is on record."

Seeing it through

The board's defense lawyers had asked the judge to dismiss the case in December, two years into proceedings, saying Dyer could not show he was adversely affected by board actions and therefore was ineligible to file suit. They also claimed Dyer had not met the statute of limitations.

"If I'd granted either [motion]," Dudley responded at the time, "it would deprive you of the thrill and excitement you've had - and you're going to have - in finishing this trial."

Dudley's recent ruling may deny Dyer the opportunity to argue a second open-meetings case brought Aug. 4 against the current school board members by Howard County parent Melody Higgins, whom Dyer represents.

"The same standing argument could be used to dismiss Melody Higgins' case," said Dyer, adding that he will incorporate the Higgins case if he files an appeal.

"Then, if the appellate court agrees with Judge Dudley, that's the end of the line," Dyer said. "But if it agrees with me, at that point Judge Dudley is going to be faced with the last [paragraph] in his memorandum."

Dudley's final words said the court would have preferred to "deal directly with the intriguing issues raised by the Plaintiff" rather than have to issue this ruling, but it had no other choice. Dyer said an appeal could give Dudley another crack at it.

But French characterizes such a move as just "draining more money from the school system that should be in the classroom with the children." As of yesterday, the Howard Department of Education has been billed $283,346 in legal fees from the outside attorneys it hired to defend board members.

"That's a heartbreak," French said. "Just think of the teachers that could have been hired or the additional help that could have been provided."

Dyer has long claimed the school board lawyers drove up the cost of the case. Board lawyers have frequently said it is the other way around.

On the record

If the appeal comes to fruition and is successful, Dyer wants the court system to force the school board to tape-record all closed sessions and keep the minutes for two years, provide minutes for each meeting at the next eligible assembly, make all written records available in computer format, and end its affiliation with the Maryland Association of Boards of Education, which holds meetings closed to the public.

"The people who want to mistrust us will not believe what they hear anyway," French said. "They continue to believe their own misconstrued thoughts that we are somehow criminal or illegal and won't let the facts dissuade them even though I know in my heart we have been compliant all along."

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