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Harford policy barring public interaction with council members under fire

The Baltimore Sun
Harford policy blocking public & media from approaching council runs contrary to democracy, some say

Citing concerns about "international terrorism" and "threats of lone terrorists," the public has been barred from approaching Harford County Council members at regular meetings where they decide matters such as school budgets, taxes and development.

The move immediately stirred outcry Tuesday from residents and advocates of open government, who said the policy flouts the nation's founding democratic principles.

"I never heard of such a thing, and obviously I am totally against it. How else can you get information from them?" said Bel Air resident Bill Wehland, a regular at meetings who often approached council members afterward and always felt welcomed.

"I don't understand why they are even coming up with such a ruling, where you can't talk to them or even say hello to them," he said.

Under the new rule set this week by Council President Richard Slutzky, residents are forbidden from approaching the dais, where the seven council members sit, after public meetings. While the public must pass through a metal detector before entering council chambers in Bel Air and the sheriff's office oversees security measures, Slutzky said he was looking to bolster protections for elected officials.

"We have been trying to address security concerns about our building and have been working with the sheriff's office on this," Slutzky said, adding that county officials are still hammering out the details.

"In the past, we didn't have these kinds of international terrorism incidents ... these threats of lone terrorists," he said.

The policy changes the long-standing practice of allowing such interactions since the council became the county's home rule legislative body in December 1972. The council oversees a $735 million budget for the county of 250,000 residents. The council president, a former high school teacher and coach, is paid about $40,000 and the other members about $36,000 a year.

The Harford council is the only legislative body of its kind in the Baltimore region with such a rule.

During a regular meeting of the council Tuesday, Slutzky defended his stance, citing security concerns. Meanwhile, his fellow council members – blindsided by the proposal – offered alternatives to keep avenues of communication open with their constituents.

Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, director of the watchdog group Common Cause Maryland, said the rule would have a "chilling effect" on public engagement and called it a "very extreme reaction to a perceived threat." She said low voter turnout in recent elections underscores the fact that "people already feel cut out."

"It seems like a hugely unnecessary barrier to public interaction," she said. "This will have a chilling effect on everyday residents. ... That's a huge concern."

At least two armed deputies are at each Harford meeting. Sheriff's office spokeswoman Cristie Kahler said in an email that "there are currently no known threats to council members or proceedings."

She said the sheriff's office meets annually with the council president to discuss safety considerations and make recommendations "on how we can best achieve balance with the safety of the elected officials and the safety of the constituents."

"We work for the people of Harford County and will work to support constituents exercising their rights to open government, while in partnership with the council to create a safe environment," she wrote.

In contrast to Harford's policy, newly installed Anne Arundel County Executive Steve Schuh removed a barrier to public access on his first day in office — a locked door that required guests to be granted access to the executive's office.

"He went to walk in and saw he had to get buzzed in and told the person who sits out there, 'Let's prop this open from now on,'" spokesman Owen McEvoy said.

Visitors to the Arundel Center must enter through a main doorway where a guard is stationed and show identification to step inside. Police set metal detectors for public meetings. Employees can use a badge to enter by side doors.

"We feel those measures are adequate at this time," McEvoy said.

In Baltimore, citizens interact with City Council members after meetings, and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said the city is not considering changes.

"It's certainly not something that I am pursuing," she said. "We have a set of policies and procedures based on our historic security concerns around City Hall, and I know that's something that the Police Department continues to evaluate on an ongoing basis."

Visitors must show identification and walk through a metal detector to enter City Hall, among other security measures.

Roberta Windham, a spokeswoman for Carroll County government, said members of the public can walk up to elected officials there after meetings. Visitors must sign in, and security monitors the building for the safety of officials, the staff and the public, she said.

Sheila Tolliver, the council's outgoing administrator in Howard, said the new council hasn't formally adopted its governing policies but the practice has long been for members of the public to be able to interact with council members.

"It's typical for them to ask questions," Tolliver said. "They can approach council without a problem."

Baltimore County's council chamber in Towson has a low wall with a gate that separates council members and their staff from the audience. After meetings, some members step down from the dais to speak with members of the audience; others return to their offices through a door near the dais.

The council's work sessions, at which council members hear most public testimony, are held in a smaller room that has no access restrictions for the public.

The Harford policy also routes all questions from the news media through the council's new spokeswoman, Sherrie Johnson. She alerted the press to the policy in an email Monday.

"After the council meetings, reporters should not approach council members directly," she wrote. "They should speak to me about questions for council members."

In Harford, former longtime councilman Dion Guthrie said the new policy is surprising and that he doesn't know of any threats made against the previous council.

"That doesn't make sense," said Guthrie, who was voted out of office last month. "If someone goes up to the dais, how can they stop them? They've got a right to talk to their councilman."

Guthrie recalled one incident in recent years in which a man in the front row was "ranting and raving" but was removed by deputies without further disruption.

Slutzky said he understands that people might want to interact with elected officials and is giving thought to allowing council members to leave the dais after meetings to talk to the public and the press. Slutzky was elected president in November; he previously served 12 years as a district council member.

Aegis editor Allan Vought and Baltimore Sun reporter Pamela Wood contributed to this article.

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