Bill would toughen Maryland Open Meetings law enforcement

New laws passed by the Maryland General Assembly late last week would put stricter penalties and an element of public shaming behind the state's open-meetings laws.

State lawmakers said public officials have been able to flout the rules without significant consequences.

"It has no enforcement whatsoever," said Del. Dan Morhaim, a Baltimore County Democrat who sponsored the bill to toughen open-meetings laws. "This is the first bill that actually creates some enforcement."

Maryland's public officials are barred from conducting public business behind closed doors, but the penalties for doing so in the past have been a rarely levied fine and a written notice that Morhaim said was often ignored.

The bill came out of a series of hearings this summer, during which a committee of state lawmakers found that sometimes officials take a written advisory about violations from the Open Meetings Compliance Board and "just throw it away."

Raquel Guillory, a spokeswoman for Gov. Martin O'Malley, said he is reviewing the bill.

The measure would increase fines for breaking the open-meetings law from $100 to $250. It would also require a public body to announce at its next meeting that the compliance board found it had broken the law. Each member of the group that violated the law would have to sign a statement acknowledging the misconduct.

Morhaim said he drafted the legislation before two Maryland institutions were separately accused last year of holding illegal meetings.

In one incident, the University System of Maryland's board signed off on the University of Maryland, College Park's move to the Big Ten Conference. In another, the Morgan State University Board of Regents voted to terminate the school president's contract — a decision it later reversed.

A Morgan spokesman has said school officials do not believe the vote violated the law. University System of Maryland officials acknowledged the breach but said that the group was "confused" and "overlooked" the law.

Those cases "drew a lot of attention to the fact that there are no teeth to our open-meetings laws," said Common Cause Maryland's executive director, Jennifer Bevan-Dangel.

Another bill passed by the legislature would require public officials to be trained on how to follow the open-meetings law.

That measure, introduced by Republican Del. Anthony O'Donnell, was praised by Common Cause and other watchdog groups.

"If citizens can't see the decisions that are made, they can't hold their elected officials accountable," Bevan-Dangel said. "And then voters can't make educated decisions at the polls if they don't know what their elected officials are doing."

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