Attorney general backs closed Venter hearing

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A Maryland attorney general's opinion appears to back the Howard County school board's decision to close the personnel hearing on the firing of Bruce M. Venter, the school system's former chief business officer, who had fought to open it to the public.

The opinion from Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., issued Wednesday, concluded that the hearing is a "quasi judicial function" that is not subject to the state's Open Meetings Act. Despite Venter's request that the hearing be open, the opinion said, "the request may be denied if the county board can identify an interest (its own or a third party's) that would be harmed were the hearing to be open."

"This is a total vindication of the board's action in regard to Venter's hearing," said Courtney Watson, board chairman. "The opinion clearly says the board has the legal right to keep the hearing closed. It was to protect the privacy of a particular employee in the case."

Allen R. Dyer, Venter's lawyer, said he considered the ruling a victory. Because the attorney general feels the open-meetings law is not involved, Dyer said, he can appeal the board's decision to the state Board of Education, and then to Circuit Court if the state board backs the county. There, he said, he could argue that the board had insufficient reason to close the hearing against Venter's wishes and possibly win an order for a new hearing or other relief.

Venter was fired in September 2003 by John O'Rourke, then superintendent. He now works for the Isle of Wight school system in Virginia.

Last month, the board upheld a hearing examiner's conclusion that O'Rourke had the legal right to fire Venter, though the board said it wouldn't have done so.

The legal opinion was sought by Del. Elizabeth Bobo, who questioned the board's decision to close the Nov. 29 hearing on Venter despite his request for an open hearing.

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