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Art Callaham: Secret? C'mon, man

February 12, 2012|By ART CALLAHAM

For those of you who might not have followed the far-too-many words already published in Mail Call and on the Opinion and news pages of this newspaper, this column concerns a meeting held several weeks ago at Fountain Head Country Club. The meeting was scheduled by Bruce Poole and included Del. John Donoghue and others. Personally, I hosted the meeting; my wife, a County Commissioner, was not invited nor did she attend.

In the days following the meeting, headlines and lead sentences cried out “secret meeting.” Oh my goodness, you were not invited, nor were the press, nor (by my count) were 148,863 other citizens of Washington County. Secret meeting; some elected officials were not invited, some were. Secret meeting; two people who were not on the original invitation came anyway. Secret meeting; laws broken, policy made, deals struck!

In the prophetic and immortal words of ESPN’s Keyshawn Johnson: “C’mon, man!” If the meeting was really “secret” (not known or seen), then how did the media know about it? How did the two originally uninvited attendees find out about the meeting? Was it a secret meeting and, finally, do most of you really care? C’mon, man!

What was actually a “private meeting” (pertaining to a particular group) has taken on the sinister aura of a backroom illegal deal-making star-chamber gathering. I was there and I can tell you, it was none of that — just a private meeting. The sinister aura has accrued, in my opinion, through the actions of overzealous folks and the reactions of some, with self-inflicted bruised egos, who were not invited and believe they should have been.

As for the perception about breaking the law (most often misjudged as guilty under the rules prescribed in “open meeting laws”), the meeting, its participants and the discussions held were totally and completely within the legal boundaries of all laws.

As for participants, the invitation e-mail (published in the newspaper) included the proverbial “doctors, lawyers and chiefs” along with retirees, not for profits, those looking to move economic development forward and, yes, even some elected officials. Were the invitees a perfect cross-section of the population of Washington County? No. Did the invitees represent many groups, income levels and political affiliations? Yes.

As for the agenda, nothing was set. However, several topics were discussed including the possible increase in Maryland's gas tax, infrastructure projects being considered by the city and county, and the pending (at the time) governor’s budget. The purpose of the meeting, called as I have already noted, was to hear some public reaction and get a sense of support or objection for the topics discussed.

To be perfectly clear, at no point during the meeting did any elected official in the room, including Del. Donoghue, voice support for any tax increase. Also, no one in the room supported a gas tax hike. The majority of the conversation centered on local projects, state funding and the current state administration’s budget projections.

Projects discussed included a bridge over Antietam Creek at Professional Court, the possible move of the administrative office of the Board of Education to the city’s downtown and public safety. Note that all of these projects are relevant to Del. Donoghue’s sub-district. 

Note also that most of the projects on this list were, at the time, being discussed in perfectly legal “closed sessions” by local elected bodies. You can surmise why the elected officials at the meeting were not free to, and did not, discuss details in this private meeting. All of these projects have now been reported publicly, which allows me some freedom to write about them in this column.

Individually, each of the people in the meeting seemed to support the Professional Court bridge project, moving the administrative offices of the Board of Education into another facility, and moving forward on infrastructure projects that would promote economic development and public safety. No elected official attending pledged support from any elected body for any project.

As for funding for projects in general, the discussion centered on the availability of state funds, and state funding being somewhat predicated on support for the final budget passed by the Maryland General Assembly.

Just another private meeting, like many others held each month in our community. I apologize to any who were not invited and felt that they should have been; I just couldn’t afford a bigger beverage bill. And please, friends, beware of those who, too often, cry foul; they are usually the least informed.

Art Callaham is a community activist and president of the Washington County Free Library Board of Trustees.

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