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Open meetings board dropped the ball

September 24, 2011|By TIM ROWLAND

Many, many years ago in a land (sort of) far away, there was a state where the three commissioners — when faced with a tough agenda item — would adjourn to the men's room, hash out the gory details in private and then return to the meeting room, where they would calmly vote on the matter without comment or controversy.

There was never any dissension, at least not in public. Everything passed or was rejected unanimously. At one point, this paper published a story about how the commission had met for something like two years or more without a single 2-1 vote.

I don't think there was anything malicious about it, or even anything corrupt, as corruption was understood back then. But favors were certainly granted, and favorites were certainly played. In private, of course.

Sunshine laws have cleaned up a lot of the mess, and local governments now understand that if they are going to meet in private they, at the very least, are likely to be called on it and will have to offer a legitimate reason for doing so.

But all the laws in the world aren't worth a fig if a state's enforcement and adjudicating arms are not committed to the task.

This week, the Maryland Open Meetings Compliance Board didn't even lift the bat off its shoulder as it watched a fat pitch sail past, one that conjured up memories of the way business used to be done in the bad old days.

Briefly, the Allegany County Commissioners abruptly announced in June that the county was paying Washington County $65,000 to educate 20 students from Little Orleans in Hancock schools.

No, this isn't the debt ceiling we're talking about — although I'm sure it matters greatly to the families involved. But it's a situation where the process holds more implications than the action itself.

The Cumberland Times-News filed a complaint with the state, correctly wondering just where and how this decision had been made. The state commission responded by saying that the county commissioners had done nothing wrong and that it had "no authority to address the mode by which the Commissioners conducted the earlier 'discussion' described in the minutes of the June 2011 meeting, because it did not occur in a meeting subject to the (Open Meetings) Act."

So, I guess, if you're not wearing a suit and tie and sitting behind a bench on an elevated dais with nameplates, a gavel and an audience of people with their hands politely folded in their laps, it doesn't count as a "meeting."

According to the Times-News, "commissioners and their administrator have backtracked over exactly how the decision went down and whether there was a formal decision."

It was formal enough, according to county minutes, for a state delegate to be involved, not to mention that $65,000 will look to many taxpayers to be more than a casual party favor.

Almost as an afterthought, the state open meetings commission wrote that, "We simply note that, as a general matter, the discussion of public business out of the public eye can lead to the perception that the 'real decision-making process' has occurred in secret and that the subsequent open meeting 'is a mere formality.'"

Do tell.

Laws are never going to put an end to casual policy discussions among elected officials, nor should they. Office holders have the right to talk over ideas and get their thoughts in order out of the public spotlight. But I don't care if a board of commissioners is sitting around in their underpants eating Cheese Doodles, if they are making decisions and spending tax money, then they are formally "meeting" in my book, and ought to be subject to the various and sundry laws that apply to open government.

It's discouraging that the state agency that's supposed to be looking out for us would take such a blase approach toward a situation that reaches into the core of open government: the legendary backroom deal.

I understand that no one cares about the press anymore. Sometimes it seems that not even the press cares about the press. There are too many Big Problems in the world today to worry about the niggling little matters of accountability and open government.

But maybe if we placed more importance on matters that help the fourth estate do its job, these Big Problems might not have become quite so big in the first place.



Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. His email address is timr@herald-mail.com.

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