Cumberland Times-News

April 13, 2013

Keep it open

‘Sunshine’ lacking in snow days decision


Cumberland Times-News

— When the Garrett County Board of Education deliberated about its snow makeup days last week, it did so behind closed doors.

While deciding on a school calendar may not be the most consequential issue the board has to address, the closed-door meeting underscores what goes on with many public bodies in Maryland. They either ignore the open meetings (Sunshine) law — or do not follow it out of ignorance.

Two pieces of legislation passed in Annapolis before the 90-day session adjourned last week aim to strengthen the open meetings law.

House Bill 139 requires each public body in the state to designate at least one of its employees or members to receive training on the requirements of the open meetings law. It also requires the body to forward a list of designated individuals to the State Open Meetings Compliance Board.

Although on-line education programs about how to comply with the law have been available for several years through the Office of the Attorney General and the University of Maryland’s Institute of Governmental Services and Research, many public bodies have failed to take advantage of the information. Now at least one representative from every public body in the state will be required to complete the training.

To their credit, the Maryland Association of Counties and the Maryland Municipal League have partnered with the Local Government Insurance Trust and the University of Maryland to provide open meetings compliance education through the Academy for Excellence in Local Governance program. Unfortunately, flagrant abuses of the law continue despite the educational effort.

Also passed in this year’s General Assembly session is House Bill 331 to increase fines for violating the open meetings act and strengthening the compliance board. Fines for violating the law will be $250 for a first violation and up to $1,000 for each subsequent violation within three years.

In a perfect world, the people we elect to public office would want to make sure as many of their deliberations as possible are done in full view of their constituents.

But the fact remains many office-holders would rather not have to deal with public scrutiny — even on such simple matters like whether to accept a state waiver for making up snow days in Garrett County.