ANNAPOLIS, DEC. 4 -- A Maryland Senate committee voted 6 to 3 today to strengthen the state's open meeting law and for the first time to impose penalties on public officials who willfully violate it.
The crucial endorsement by the Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee came despite a summer-long assault of criticism from city and county officials, school board leaders and representatives of Gov. William Donald Schaefer.
Sen. Gerald W. Winegrad (D-Anne Arundel), who led a subcommittee that drafted changes in the law, said he was surprised by the "stonewalling" of opponents. "I always say what's wrong with openness?" Winegrad said. "Why are people so afraid of open meetings?"
Opponents say the proposed requirements, though noble in intention, could add a new dimension of uncertainty for local officials. Members of boards and commissions, particularly in small towns and counties, could be intimidated by the possibility of a $100 civil penalty for breaking the open meeting law, opponents said, causing them not to seek election.
"The law is complicated enough so they could get themselves in trouble without realizing it," said Julia C. Irons, staff associate at the Maryland Association of Counties, a leading opponent of the changes endorsed by the committee today.
"They'll be a lot more careful about closing meetings," Irons said. "This is another thing they're going to have to worry about getting sued over."
The proposal takes away one catch-all phrase in current law that allows public bodies to close their meetings to the public for any reason they consider "compelling," a loophole that other state laws do not allow. It retains provisions that permit closed sessions for personnel matters and legal discussions.
Records of executive sessions would have to be maintained for a year and opened in certain cases. Also a three-member compliance board would be created to advise public officials about whether they could close meetings. The board would have not much authority but is viewed as an arbiter and a way to prevent litigation.
Maryland is among a minority of states having no penalties in its open meeting law. More than 30 states have penalties, up to six months in jail for officials who break the law.
The changes, pushed by a group of newspapers, television stations and Common Cause, will be considered again after the General Assembly reconvenes Jan. 9. They are viewed as having good prosects in the Senate, where the principal backer is President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Prince George's). However, the outlook is less certain in the House of Delegates, where small-town elected officials are said to be more influential.
Among closed sessions that would have been illegal had the bill been in effect, Winegrad pointed to:
The University of Maryland Board of Regents meeting recently at which higher tuition charges were discussed.
Meetings a year ago when a commission made recommendations for off-track betting on horse races.
Baltimore City Council meetings at which officials decided to close some neighborhood fire stations.