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dick fleming 4/28/01

April 30, 2001

Secret sessions should be school board's last choice



It now appears likely that a recent secret meeting of the Washington County School Board was related to the subsequent resignation of the superintendent of schools, Herman G. Bartlett.

If that is so, the board was justified in its refusal to disclose the particulars of the meeting. The Maryland Open Meetings Act permits the private discussion of confidential matters such as personnel issues.

The conduct of board members in connection with the meeting, however, should be troubling to anyone who is concerned about the erosion of public confidence in government.

In response to a reporter's inquiry, they initially denied meeting; one even quibbled over what constitutes a meeting.

After acknowledging they in fact met, some board members refused comment while others gave conflicting accounts of the meeting. The board president first said it was an "executive function," allowed under the Open Meetings Act, and later reversed himself and said the meeting was requested by an outside individual - whom he would not identify.

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He went on to say the board has met on several occasions without notifying the public. He defended the practice by saying, in essence, that it is sometimes difficult for the board to carry out its duties under the public's watchful eye.

The impression left by so much evasion and backtracking is that the board has something to hide. That perception has to be disturbing not only to the public, but to members of the board who campaigned for office on a promise of openness.

As an isolated incident, the board's refusal to follow secret meeting protocol would still be an affront to the people's right to know about business undertaken on their behalf. As part of a larger pattern of resistance to public accountability, it reflects a cult of secrecy that is at best misguided and at worst dangerous.

Such action ignores the lesson that secret government is rife with mischief. It is also blind to the inevitable erosion of public confidence that undermines the ability of democratic institutions to function effectively.

The board could have avoided raising public suspicions by issuing a simple statement along these lines:

"The board is going to hold a closed meeting to review a matter involving personnel. This confidential matter is protected under provisions of the Maryland Open Meetings Act.

"We regret the need to conduct the public's business in private, but feel it is warranted by circumstances.

"Once the board settles on a course of action in the matter under review, it will make a public announcement."

Such a statement would have sent a clear signal the board will retreat behind closed doors only as a last resort. As it is, the board's predisposition toward secrecy has damaged its credibility at a time that - given the impending struggle over school consolidation and other important issues - it can ill afford to.

Board members might also consider the civics lesson they are inadvertently teaching the future citizens whose education is entrusted to them. Rather than encouraging participation in the democratic process, their secrecy casts a pall of cynicism and distrust.

Dick Fleming is weekend editor at The Herald-Mail. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 2329, or by e-mail at dickf@herald-mail.com.

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