It is against the law for county governing boards in Maryland to meet in secret on county budgets, the Maryland Court of Appeals has ruled. But, the same court said in a seemingly contradictory decision, the governing boards are free to continue violating the law and making their budget decisions behind closed doors.
In a decision handed down in Annapolis, the state's highest court ruled unanimously that, where budgets are involved, state courts cannot enforce the so-called "sunshine law" that prohibits the conduct of public business in closed sessions.
The opinion written by Judge Marvin Smith said the open-meetings law enacted by the General Assembly in 1977 specifically prohibits courts from issuing injunctions or taking other steps against "an action appropriating public funds."
"The entire budgetary process can be said to be an integrated one, each part of which is 'essential' to the final product and to the enactment of the budget into law . . . an essential step to the levying of taxes," Smith's decision declared.
In an earlier decision, the court had ruled that the Maryland General Assembly itself violated the law last year by holding a state budget conference committee meeting behind closed doors, but that the court was legally incapable of enforcing the law.
The later case involving county governing boards was filed by the Carroll County Times, a daily paper in Westminster, against the Carroll County Board of Commissioners. It contended that the board had illegally excluded its reporter from budgetary work sessions.
A lower court backed the paper. But the Court of Appeals even ignored the county board's defense, saying with what seemed to be a judicial shrug of the shoulders that the court had no power to intervene in the case.