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Group wants PenMar to obey open meetings law

July 23, 2004|by TARA REILLY

tarar@herald-mail.com

CASCADE - Cascade residents, saying they fear the PenMar Development Corp. will hold secret meetings about the sale of the former Fort Ritchie U.S. Army base, have asked in a complaint filed with Maryland's Open Meetings Compliance Board that the board rule the meetings must be announced to the public.

They also want PenMar to begin all meetings in open session before it goes into closed-door meetings.

PenMar Executive Director Rich Rook said the state-created agency will inform the media of its closed meetings and adhere to Maryland's Open Meetings Act, as stated in its bylaws.

PenMar, however, isn't technically bound by the Open Meetings Act, as stated in the Annotated Code of Maryland, Rook and Washington County Attorney Richard Douglas said.

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"Our reading is we don't really have to make these official notices," Rook said.

The residents' group, Cascade Committee, filed its complaint shortly after PenMar met in an unannounced special closed meeting on June 29.

After the closed session, the PenMar board of directors authorized its negotiating committee to complete a sale agreement for the former base to a Columbia, Md., company.

Members of the Cascade Committee said PenMar should have announced the meeting.

Rook said PenMar plans another special closed meeting on Monday at 7:30 a.m. at Lakeside Hall at the former base. The PenMar board plans to begin the meeting in closed session, he said. More closed meetings might be held in coming weeks, he said.

No comment


Maryland Assistant Attorney General Bill Varga said he could not comment on whether PenMar must comply with the Open Meetings Act because the complaint has already been filed with the Open Meetings Compliance Board.

He said the Attorney General's Office provides staff support to the Compliance Board, and he didn't want to give the impression that the office backed one side over the other.

Karl Weissenbach, director of the Cascade Committee, said PenMar's plan to hold closed meetings was "outrageous."

Because PenMar's bylaws state the agency will comply with the Open Meetings Act, Weissenbach said PenMar should announce all of its meetings to the public and begin the meetings in open session, as stated by the act.

"They agreed to abide by the Open Meetings Act," he said. "Our view is they have to abide by their own bylaws."

By labeling the meetings as "closed" without first meeting in open session, Weissenbach contended that PenMar is trying to intimidate residents by keeping them away from the meetings.

If PenMar doesn't begin its meetings in open session, the Cascade Committee will ask state legislators to change the Annotated Code and force PenMar to do so.

"That leaves us with no choice but to go back to Annapolis and ask for an amendment to the statute," Weissenbach said. "Shame on the PenMar board. Shame on them."

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