Cumberland Times-News

September 26, 2010

Meetings: Still only partial sunshine

Jan Alderton, Managing Editor
Cumberland Times-News

On March 15, 1973, The Cumberland News — which was the morning newspaper published by the Times-News — carried the following column written by me about the need for more open government in Maryland. The column was titled, “Let the Sun Shine In.”

The column is worth another read, given that open government in Maryland still is not what it should be, and given that every election year candidates for local office pledge to make government more open and responsive to the citizenry.

Earlier this month, during a period of damp, drizzle and dark clouds, House Bill 493 was killed by a General Assembly committee. The weather in a situation like this normally wouldn’t warrant mention, except that the bill in question was the so-called “Sunshine Law.”

It was being proffered by a Washington County delegate, Richard Grumbacher, as a means for state, county and local officials to gain the full trust of the public in making all of their meetings open to the public.

Florida, with great fanfare and success, implemented the legislation several years ago. Del. Grumbacher said Maryland should follow suit. “I think maybe we think this is great for everyone else, but it should also be great for us,” he argued.

But the House Committee on Constitutional and Administrative Law didn’t see it that way, and the bill was given the axe.

The public in Maryland regained a margin of its loss last week, when similar legislation came up on the federal level, with one house of Congress going along with the change and the other modifying its procedures to a degree.

The House, by an overwhelming vote, agreed to open all of its committee meetings. The Senate, however, backed down on the open hearing proposal, but it did agree to permit individual committees to open up hearings when the majority of the committee wants to. It is interesting to note that both of Maryland’s Senators, Charles McC. Mathias and J. Glenn Beall Jr., and the state’s Sixth District congressman, Goodloe Byron, voted to open the meetings.

But it is unfortunate that the Grumbacher bill failed, for it is that bill which would have struck at the foundation of local and state decision-making processes.

Western Maryland could well be one of the heaviest losers because of the Grumbacher bill’s rejection, for it seems that this area has a number of public bodies and agencies which have unusual and irregular methods of conducting meetings.

Take Cumberland, for example. There is the Memorial Hospital Board of Governors, at least a quasi-city agency, which last year voted that it would allow no one into its meetings unless special invitation is voted by the board members.

The Cumberland Muncipal Planning and Zoning Commission until last year held its meetings not in the City Hall council chambers, but in a small conference room, with the executive session and regular meetings often overlapping. The meetings are now held in the chambers, but preceded by often-lengthy “executive sessions” in the conference room.

The Cumberland City Council has in the past drawn criticism for what some have labeled “star chamber” meetings. The council meets each Tuesday, with a long executive session starting about two hours before, minus the mayor who boycotts the private meetings, but who has on occasion attended when the mood hits him.

The council rightly argues that under the law it can hold executive sessions and it has said many times in the past that no decisions are made in the private meeting. But this reporter has on more than one occasion seen a councilman complain after a regular meeting that one of his colleagues “double crossed” him by voting the opposite of the vote he had “indicated” in the executive session.

The Cumberland Urban Renewal Agency board on only rare occasions moves its meetings outside of its inner-office City Hall quarters. There have been times when the CURA conference room has been so crowded that the meeting looked like a convention for sardines, but the CURA board would apparently rather sit elbow to elbow than move its session into the more roomy and inviting council chambers.

Not only that, but the board never has taken official action to clarify what constitutes a quorum for a meeting. When the city council was added to the CURA board, the quorum was not changed, and last summer the agency attorney requested the board to re-vote on a matter, “just in case” there was a doubt about the quorum rule.

The finger should not be pointed only to Cumberland. Take Garrett County, where the county commissioners meet on Monday morning of each week, and an “appointment” is needed if you want to take up a matter with the board. After the appointments are finished, the board goes into an all-day executive session.

A similar situation is reported in Mineral County, which is West Virginia’s responsibility.

Del. Grumbacher has said he wants “everyone to play the cards in the open ... we should run our meetings as open as possible. Let’s open the doors.”