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Legislators tour Rosewood Center

The Baltimore Sun

State legislators toured the Rosewood Center for the developmentally disabled yesterday, but they said the visit did not give them enough information about the problems that have jeopardized federal funding at the complex.

John M. Colmers, secretary of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, barred reporters from attending the tour with members of two legislative subcommittees.

"I'm worried about the magnitude of people going through the facility and disrupting the residents," Colmers told legislators. "I'm certainly worried about their privacy."

But Senate Majority Leader Edward J. Kasemeyer, the Howard County Democrat who chairs one subcommittee, said he saw only one Rosewood resident during a 45-minute tour. There were about 20 people on the tour - eight legislators, aides and state officials, he said.

"The tour was abbreviated because of time, and I was disappointed because we were told the residents were doing their daily activities. I didn't get a sense of it," Kasemeyer said.

Del. Mary-Dulany James, a Havre de Grace Democrat and chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee subcommittee on health and human services, said legislators toured two dormitories, and she saw three or four residents. The subcommittee likely will return to take a longer tour, James said.

John B. Hammond, a spokesman for the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, said the decision to bar the news media from the tour was made Monday night.

Although only three print reporters attended yesterday's meeting, state officials stuck with their decision.

Colmers said later yesterday that he had not considered the Open Meetings Act, adding there was "no intention to be in violation of that."

Jack Schwartz, an assistant state attorney general and counsel to the Open Meetings Compliance Board, declined to comment.

John J. Murphy, executive director of the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association, questioned whether reporters could be prevented from attending the tour, which was held in the middle of the commitees' joint three-hour meeting.

"I don't think they can do that legally," he said.

Robert Zarnoch, counsel to the General Assembly, said that although the two subcommittees had quorums, they did not violate the state Open Meetings Act because a legislative subcommittee is not considered a "public body" for purposes of the law.

Zarnoch cited a section of the state Open Meetings Manual that says if the functions of a "subgroup of a public body is not set out in statute, bylaw, resolution or other formal instrument ... the subgroup itself would not be a public body."

The Open Meetings Compliance Board has ruled that a "subcommittee that is simply designed by the presiding official ... is not a public body," he said.

The legislators gathered at the 300-acre campus in Owings Mills less than two weeks after the release of a state Health Department report that documented problems ranging from the inability of staff members to control aggressive residents to missed feedings of intubated residents.

The review by the Office of Health Care Quality, part of the state health department, said staff members did not take steps to protect other employees or residents from a client with a history of violent behavior.

Since January, the department has banned new Rosewood admissions three times. Investigators documented several incidents in which staff members failed to stop patient-on-patient violence.

If the center does not meet federal standards, it will lose about $17 million in federal funding for annual operations by July.

James questioned why the department had not made progress in the months since a law was passed to require the department to assess each resident's situation, and determine when and how much it would cost to move residents to another site or into the community.

Robert Day, who became the center's director in late May, said the state has provided "intensive training" to Rosewood staff members and also made several changes, such as assigning workers to specific housing areas instead of shuttling them around.

There are 168 residents at Rosewood - 33 of whom the state refers to as "forensic" because they are referred by the judicial system.

Advocates for the disabled have called on the state to close Rosewood.

"What we have said all along is that the approach should not be to fix it," said Brian Cox, executive director of the Maryland Developmental Disabilities Council. "There is no other [reasonable] response ... than closing down an archaic facility."

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