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One-party delegations use loophole to evade Maryland open meeting law

The Prince George's County delegation in the House of Delegates will not meet Friday, but the Democratic caucus of that delegation will.

The membership of the delegation and the caucus are precisely the same. The difference is that where delegation meetings are generally open to the public, party caucus meetings are not.

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Caucus meetings in counties with single-party delegations are a popular way for Maryland lawmakers to hash out local issues free from the prying eyes of the public. But the practice, defended by delegation members, raises red flags among advocates of open government.

"We're very concerned any time they use a loophole in the Open Meetings Act to avoid transparency," said Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, executive director of Common Cause Maryland.

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It's a loophole that's available to only a few delegations. Most of Maryland's larger jurisdictions, such as Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties, have delegations that include Democrats and Republicans.

But Baltimore City, along with Prince George's, Montgomery and Charles counties, have all-Democratic delegations. Carroll County and some of Maryland's rural counties are all Republicans.

This year, the 23-member Prince George's delegation has announced several meetings as a party caucus. According to a member, the topic of Friday's caucus meeting is the plan for a new teaching hospital in the county -- perhaps the hottest topic in Prince George's in recent years.

Del. Jay Walker, chair of the Prince George's delegation, said that group's official business is "pretty much done" for the year. He said members want to discuss certain issues but declined to say much more.

Del. Marvin E. Holmes, who chairs the county caucus, said the group is holding a closed-door meeting "just so we can be open and honest with each other."

Delegates from the other big Democratic jurisdictions defended the practice.

Del. Shane Robinson, chair of the 24-member Montgomery County House delegation, said delegates from Maryland's largest delegation haven't held a Democratic caucus meeting this year. However, he said there have been such meetings in past years when there were sensitive issues to discuss.

"I understand we are using a loophole," Robinson said. "It's a practical tool and I think if we don't use it, we'll be shirking our duty to our county."

Del. Nathaniel T. Oaks, who chairs Baltimore's House Democrats, said he hasn't held a caucus meeting recently but did so earlier in the session.

Oaks said the caucus meetings are useful because there are "some things we want to keep in house." He said members sometimes prefer to meet in private because "sometimes we can be kind of intense."

"We come in and discuss it as a family united," Oaks said.

Bevan-Dangel said issues such as the Prince George's hospital are precisely the type of matter that should be discussed in public.

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"It needs to be brought out into the sunlight [so] the public can know what they're doing," she said.

Asked why Prince George's delegates needed to meet in private while lawmakers from multi-party jurisdictions do not, Holmes laughed off the question.

"If other delegates want to have the same luxury," he said, they can drop in at Democratic Party headquarters and fill out a membership card.

Sen. Justin Ready, a Carroll County Republican, said delegates and senators from his jurisdiction hold joint delegation meetings but do not meet in county Republican caucuses and have no plans to do so.

"We always conduct our meetings openly in accordance with Open Meetings," he said.

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