A Maryland commission on the Chesapeake Bay has been weighing controls on development in meetings that have taken place behind closed doors this summer.
Former representative Michael D. Barnes, chairman of the Commission on Growth in the Chesapeake Region, said the commission's last few meetings have been closed to allow members to discuss issues freely and informally. He said no official actions have been taken in the closed-door sessions, which were first reported in the Baltimore Sun.
The 18-member commission is exempt from the requirements of Maryland's open meetings law because it is not an official public body, according to state Attorney General J. Joseph Curran. Gov. William Donald Schaefer created the group informally, rather than by executive order.
"We have had informal discussions among commission members," said Barnes, adding that commission sessions from now on will be public.
The commission is preparing legislative proposals for Schaefer that are expected to be completed by the end of the year. The goals are to preserve forests and farmland, and to reduce the impact of development on the bay.
"There's no secrecy. It's just trying to get your ideas together on a very complex subject," said commission member Arnold M. Kronstadt, a representative of the state planning department. The commission also includes developers and conservationists.
In Ocean City, where he was attending the Maryland Association of Counties meeting yesterday, Schaefer said that he supports Barnes's decision to close some commission meetings.
"You can't do everything you want to do in public session," Schaefer said. "You've got to have free expression. There has to be executive sessions to give the people an opportunity to do their work. I subscribe to it."
Curran, a speaker at an afternoon session on the state open meetings law for local officials, said in an interview that the commission is not covered by the law and therefore can legally close its deliberations.
"It's not even close," Curran said. But Curran added that the closed meetings seem contrary to the spirit of the law, which intends that public business be conducted in the open.
The attorney general said he would recommend passage of a bill studied last year in the General Assembly to expand open meetings laws to cover public bodies similar to the bay commission.
"Often the input needs to be scrutinized during the process rather than just the end product," he said.
Staff writer Richard Tapscott contributed to this report.