The Prince George's County American Civil Liberites Union (ACLU) this week decided to seek circuit court action that would force a school board-appointed advisory committee on busing to open its meetings to the public.
The ACLU move came in the wake of decision by the advisory committee last week, and a reaffirmation of that decision this week, to exclude reporters and the public from committee meetings. The committee also asked members not to discuss its work with reporters or the public.
The decision began the latest chapter in controversy that has swirled around the committee since it was created last fall to seek ways to reduce busing in the county without resegregating the schools.
The role of the committee was opposed from the start by the Prince George's NAACP chapter, which viewed the group as an agent of antibusing sentiment on the county school board. The NAACP refused to allow any of its members to sit on the committee.
Bonnie Johns, the only voting black member of the Prince George's school board, decided not to appoint the three members she could have named to the group. Other school board members appointed a total of 27 persons to the advisory group.
Claire Bigelow, the one ACLU member appointed to the committee, resigned after her organization, decided it would prefer to monitor the deliberations of the committee rather than participate.
After Bigelow resigned, no members of the committee officially represented either the ACLU or the NAACP, the two groups that had threatened to take the school board to court if it approved a plan which reduced busing but resegregated the schools.
Recently, the work of the committee took another strange turn. The committee entertained a motion to resign en masse after the school board decided not to grant a committee request. The committee had asked that the school board staff produce a tentative plan for a neighborhood elementary school system with all schools being between 25 and 75 percent black.
Although the resignation notion failed, two committee members resigned anyway because they thought the school board was not giving the committee enough support.
To divert public attention from the deliberation of the committee, the group last week voted to exclude the press and public from its remaining meetings.
"I was stunned by their original decision to close the meeting," said Arno Winard, a member of the Fellowship for Equal Rights of Southern Prince George's County, a civil rights advocacy group. "One of the advisory committee members turned around and gave me one of those looks that said, 'Uh huh, we got you.'"
Advisory committee members argue, however, that their decision to close the meetings was absolutely necessary.
"We aren't trying to hide anything," said Emerson Markham, chairman of the committee. "Our members just feel that the school board should get our report before the press gives it to the public."
The decision to close the meetings has set off a major battle between the ACLU, which has traditionally been a staunch supporter of open meetings and first amendment rights, and the advisory committee, which would like to keep its deliberations secret until it files its final report with the board of education on March 1.
"Not only is this a violation of the state sunshine law, but it's a violation of freedom of speech and freedom of the press," said Bigelow, chairman of the ACLU education committee.
"This action denies us the right to be able to talk about the issues involved in busing in an informed fashion," added Bigelow. "It's almost as if we were being held hostage outside of the door every time the committee meets."
Bigelow and several members of the ACLU met with Markham just before the start of this week's advisory committee meeting in an effort to persuade the committee to reconsider its decision to close its sessions. They failed, and the committee in closed session voted narrowly to keep the meeting closed.
Although a spokesman for the committee said that the official vote count could not be released, Robert Alcock, the sponsor of the motion failed by one vote. Another source on the committee said that about a third of the 18 to 20 members who attended the session abstained.
Shortly thereafter, the ACLU decided to file a complaint under the Maryland state sunshine law which requires that public bodies open their deliberations to the press and public unless a two-thirds majority of the group finds a compelling reason to close the meetings.
Bigelow said the group has not yet shown that it had a compelling reason to close the meeting and its action undoubtedly will cast a shadow over the work of the group.
"If their goals and objectives are the same as those of the ACLU and the public, why would they close their meeting"? she said. "They must be planning to do something that they don't want the public to know about."
Bigelow said she expects the circuit court to reach a decision before Monday, when the citizens' advisory committee on busing will hold its last scheduled meeting. The deadline for submission of the committee's final report to the school board is March 1.