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Council plans fewer closed meetings

January 21, 2000|By DAN KULIN /Staff Writer

Hagerstown's Mayor and City Council will probably spend less time in closed-door budget meetings this year than they did last year, a majority of council members said Friday.

"I don't think we'll have as many (closed meetings), but we'll have some with personnel discussions," said Councilman William M. Breichner.

"I think last year there was a learning curve we worked our way through. I don't think we'll have that same level of difficulty (this year)," Breichner said.

To balance the current fiscal year's budget, which was approved by the council in May, the mayor and council had to trim as much as $1.1 million from the general fund.

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The balancing act was achieved in part by raising the trash collection fee, choosing not to fill several unstaffed positions, laying off the city's part-time Farmers Market coordinator and offering early retirement incentives to other employees.

Some of the early budget discussions between the mayor and council were done in executive sessions, which are closed to the public. At the time, Mayor Robert E. Bruchey II said the council had agreed to $775,000 in cuts during the closed meetings.

The sessions, of which there were at least four, drew criticism and prompted a former city councilman to file a complaint with the Maryland Open Meetings Compliance Board. The state later ruled the mayor and council were allowed to hold those discussions in private.

The mayor and council are scheduled to formally start fiscal year 2000-2001 budget talks today during a special 9 a.m. meeting at the Frostburg State University Center on Public Square in Hagerstown.

Councilman J. Wallace McClure said there will probably be fewer closed-door budget discussions because of the attention last year's meetings received.

He said at least one closed meeting will "invariably occur" because of personnel-related talks, but McClure said he wants to keep the meetings open to the public "as much as possible."

McClure said last year he didn't question suggestions to close council meetings, but now he's taking a closer look at the reasons for going into closed sessions.

Councilman Lewis C. Metzner said, "I wouldn't expect to see a lot of closed meetings on this budget."

He added that he would expect a debate among council members if it is suggested they take some of the budget discussions behind closed doors.

"My basic position is do whatever you can in open session," Metzner said.

Councilwoman Susan Saum-Wicklein said "topics appropriate for closed doors will be (discussed) in closed doors."

She said it was too early to speculate on how budget meetings may progress.

Councilman Alfred W. Boyer also said it was premature to say how many closed-door budget meetings they might have.

The mayor did not return telephone messages left Friday.

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