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Paper seeks investigation of closed-door meeting

May 24, 1999|By SCOTT BUTKI

The Herald-Mail Co. filed a complaint Monday with the Maryland Open Meetings Compliance Board, asking it to investigate whether Hagerstown's Mayor and City Council violated state law regarding open meetings.

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It was the second time in less than two weeks that a complaint has been filed with the Compliance Board against the city government.

On May 13, former Hagerstown City Councilman Ira P. Kauffman Jr. asked the compliance board to look into four closed-door meetings involving budget discussions.

On Monday, Towson attorney Mary R. Craig, who represents The Herald-Mail newspapers, asked the board to investigate a May 18 closed-door discussion by the council.

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Mayor Robert E. Bruchey II said that during that meeting the City Council reached a consensus to offer the 60,000-square-foot Baldwin House Complex as a free site for the University System of Maryland, Hagerstown campus. The motion to go into closed session was made by Councilman Lewis C. Metzner and was passed unanimously.

After the closed meeting, Bruchey sent a letter to Gov. Parris Glendening, Washington County Commissioners President Gregory I. Snook and others explaining the offer.

The reason given for the closed session was discussion of a new business.

But the 60,000-square-foot Baldwin House Complex is owned by the city, not a business.

And the University System is a public agency, not a business, said John Lippincott, a University System spokesman. "The newspaper believes that the City Council violated the law by discussing the potential gift or transfer of the Baldwin House property to the University of Maryland for use as a satellite location for the University System,'' Craig wrote.

There was no public discussion of the proposal during the open portion of the meeting, she said.

"This was the last straw in a disturbing trend toward secrecy in City Hall. First the budget, now this. This is a public building, being offered to a public agency for a public use. What does it take to get the mayor and council to open their doors?" said Gloria George, executive editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

"We filed a complaint because the people of Hagerstown deserve to know what their elected representatives are doing," she said.

Bruchey and City Attorney Mark Boyer said they had no comment on the open meetings complaint filed by the newspaper. Boyer referred calls to County Administrator Bruce Zimmerman.

"We will definitely take whatever steps we need to comply with the law," Zimmerman said.

"Our attorney is reviewing your attorney's letter. He'll provide us with guidance on any compliance issues. We will take it very seriously and we will take a good, hard look at it," he said.

Once a complaint is filed, the city has 30 days to respond.

Beyond issuing an opinion, the Compliance Board usually does not take any disciplinary action against a governing body that breaks a law, said Kimberly Ward, an assistant attorney general at the board office in Baltimore.

Under Maryland's Open Meetings Act, legislative bodies are permitted to vote to hold closed meetings for 14 specific reasons. Those reasons include discussions of most personnel matters, pending or potential lawsuits and to obtain legal advice.

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