Maryland's second-highest court wrestled yesterday with whether the average Joe has the right to sue public bodies if they appear to meet illegally in secret - a legal question raised by an Ellicott City attorney's quest to hold the Howard County Board of Education accountable for its less-than-public actions.
Before a three-judge panel at the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, attorney Allen Dyer argued that as a citizen and taxpayer he was entitled to sue the Howard County school board for alleged violations of the state's Open Meetings Act.
A Howard County circuit judge dismissed his lawsuit last year. That sparked a backlash from the media and state politicians, who said the so-called "sunshine law" should allow everyone to seek legal redress if they believe a public body has violated it. The judges' comments yesterday appeared to suggest they agreed.
"It seems to me, that's a reasonable interpretation of the Open Meetings Act," said Joseph F. Murphy Jr., chief judge of the Maryland Court of Special Appeals. He was flanked by judges James A. Kenney III and J. Frederick Sharer.
"[The law] was enacted so that interested citizens could come down and make sure things are being done properly," Murphy said.
The General Assembly overwhelmingly approved legislation this year aimed at reversing the lower court's ruling, should it stand on appeal. The legislation, which is awaiting Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s signature, would change the open-meetings law to say "any person" may sue if a public body meets illegally in secret, replacing current language saying that only people "affected adversely" may go to court.
Last year, Howard County Circuit Court Judge James B. Dudley dismissed Dyer's case, which was filed in November 2000, declaring that Dyer didn't have the legal standing to sue the school board for the violations he perceived - including meeting illegally in closed session, failing give proper meeting notice, neglecting to provide timely records to the public and taking actions outside its authority.
The school board has steadfastly denied any wrongdoing, though members have since changed many of their practices to better comply with the spirit of the Open Meetings Act. The school system has spent $360,000 defending itself in the case.
Dudley's August opinion - which Dyer appealed - interpreted the phrase "affected adversely" to mean a complainant must have suffered some loss of income or property value because of the board's action - essentially siding with county school officials.
The wording was put into the law, school board attorney Leslie Stellman argued, so that the "floodgates don't open" for frivolous lawsuits. But there is no evidence that is what lawmakers intended, noted Murphy.
Stellman, the board's lawyer, and Dyer said they thought yesterday's session, which lasted about an hour, went well. Stellman said a ruling could take up to three months.