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Board says Mayor, City Council broke the law

July 14, 1999|By BRENDAN KIRBY

Hagerstown Mayor Robert E. Bruchey II and the City Council illegally discussed the Baldwin House complex behind closed doors in May, a state board ruled Wednesday.

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In a separate complaint, the Open Meetings Compliance Board ruled Wednesday that the city acted within its rights when it held preliminary budget discussions in closed session earlier this year.

The compliance board determined that city officials violated the Maryland Open Meetings Act on May 18 when they discussed whether to offer the vacant Baldwin complex to the University of Maryland. The decision of the compliance board, which reviews complaints about Maryland's Open Meeting Act, is advisory, and as such is not binding.

"The people of Hagerstown are well-served by this decision. Secret government is lousy government," said Gloria J. George, executive editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers, which filed the complaint.

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Bruchey said the city accepts the board's decision and has no plans to appeal. But he defended the decision to discuss the Baldwin issue behind closed doors.

"My interpretation is that we didn't do anything wrong," he said. "We accept the fact that we'll have to be a little more careful next time about what we discuss."

The discussion focused on the city's proposal to offer the complex for a proposed University of Maryland campus and included talk about the Bowman Group's proposal to renovate the building. The motion to go into closed session was made by Councilman Lewis C. Metzner and was passed unanimously.

Metzner could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

The city argued that University of Maryland is a "business" that falls into a category of exceptions to the open-meetings law.

The compliance board ruled that the term "business" is not so broadly defined.

"Therefore, the exception on which the city relied was not applicable," said Assistant Attorney General Jack Schwartz, the board's counsel.

Bruchey disagreed, saying, "It still makes a profit."

Bruchey said much of the discussion centered on the Bowman Group, which is a private business.

In the second complaint, Hagerstown resident and former council member Ira P. Kauffman Jr. argued that the city illegally closed four meetings on the budget earlier this year.

The compliance board agreed with the city's contention that the Mayor and City Council could hold preliminary discussions in private because they were acting in their executive function.

The board based its decision on the form of government in Hagerstown, which combines the legislative and executive branches.

The mayor and council act both as a legislative body and as an executive. The Montgomery County executive, for instance, does not have to hold open meetings with department heads when formulating a budget proposal.

"When a governing body wears both hats, when it's wearing its executive hat, the Open Meetings Act does not apply," Schwartz said.

In Hagerstown, the board ruled, the city administrator has a right to get input from elected officials before formally presenting a budget proposal.

City Administrator Bruce Zimmerman said the ruling is important because the budget discussions occur every year.

"I'm certainly pleased in that regard," he said. "That's obviously an important process for us."

Bruchey said he takes no pleasure in discussing issues in private.

"I don't like to do anything that my public doesn't know about," he said. "I don't look at this as a win or a loss when it comes to Ira's complaint."

Kauffman said the decision was not unexpected.

"The way I read this ruling, it is possible for the mayor and council to have all discussions about the budget in private, and then just publish a date for a hearing, have the hearing and then vote on it - and that's it," he said. "I don't think that the citizens of Hagerstown want clandestine government."

Bruchey said the outcome of this year's budget refutes Kauffman's premise that the city rammed through a budget without consulting the public.

He noted that the city held a public hearing on the budget and eliminated a proposal to cut trash service to once a week.

"We did listen to our constituents. We did do what they wanted," he said.

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