Cumberland Times-News

January 8, 2013

Transparency

Lawmakers act to put more bite in open meetings law


Cumberland Times-News

— Public bodies that violate Maryland’s Open Meetings Act have had little to worry about — other than the proverbial slap on the hand. All that would change under legislation to be filed during the 2013 Maryland General Assembly legislative session that opens today in Annapolis.

Delegate Dan Morhaim, a Democrat from Baltimore County who is chairman of the House Government Operations subcommittee, plans on introducing a bill to beef up the regulatory powers of the Open Meetings Compliance Board, according to Maryland-Reporter.com.

Morhaim’s bill would allow the board to fine public bodies for illegally closing meetings. The first offense could bring a fine of $1,000. For a third offense, the fine could reach $10,000.

Additionally, Morhaim wants members of any public body violating the law to sign an acknowledgement that the compliance board has found them guilty of the violation.

The findings of the three-member compliance board also could be admitted as evidence in a lawsuit.

Too often responses to violations of the open meetings act are simply handled by the public body’s attorney, with little, or no, involvement or accountability from people who actually met in private.

Since there is no “teeth” in the existing law, some public bodies have a cavalier attitude about closed meetings, knowing they will face no consequences if they are found in violation of the open meetings law.

“Currently their (the compliance board) opinions are only advisory and tend to be ignored,” Morham told MarylandReporter.com. He said there is a new, online course on how to comply with the open meetings act, “so excuses of not knowing the act are less convincing.:”

State lawmakers should do what they can to  make sure public bodies are acting in a transparent fashion.

Public business should be done before the public when at all possible. Morhaim’s bill is a step in that direction.