A leading proponent of a bill that would have made it easier for residents to sue when the state's open meetings law is violated says she will reintroduce the measure next year in the General Assembly.
Del. Elizabeth Bobo (D-Howard), who co-sponsored the bill, called its veto last week by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) "a setback for open government." The bill was backed by other Howard County lawmakers and an overwhelming majority of the Maryland General Assembly.
The legislation was prompted by a Howard County Circuit Court case in which Allen Dyer, an Ellicott City lawyer, alleged that the county Board of Education had violated the state's Open Meetings Act. A judge dismissed the suit, saying that Dyer had failed to prove that he was personally affected by the board's actions. Bobo and other lawmakers then drafted legislation to ensure that anyone could sue if a board illegally met in secret.
Bobo said that before Circuit Judge James B. Dudley's ruling, residents assumed anyone who believed a public board had violated the open meetings law could file a complaint. She said she would not abandon her effort to see the measure enacted into law.
"It provides good protection against any government entity that may want to do the public's business behind closed doors," she said.
Bobo said she was surprised by Ehrlich's veto because his aides did not question the measure during committee hearings. "It's a rather unusual way to do business, to remain quiet during the entire legislative process and then to veto," she said.
In a statement explaining his decision, Ehrlich said the bill would open the door to frivolous lawsuits and allow anyone to sue, even if a board's actions had no impact on someone. He said that a resident of Cecil County could file a complaint against the Prince George's County Board of Education.
"At a time of limited resources, when local governments are struggling to meet local needs -- including the educational needs of Maryland's children -- it would be inappropriate to impose these added litigation costs on our local public bodies," Ehrlich wrote in his veto message.
Ehrlich said the State Open Meetings Law Compliance Board exists to handle such complaints. But Bobo and other lawmakers have argued that the board does not have enforcement powers.
The Maryland Court of Special Appeals is considering Dyer's challenge. It heard oral arguments last month. The three-judge panel could decide within the next few months whether to uphold or overturn the lower court's decision. Dyer, a longtime activist on school issues, had a daughter who attended River Hill High School in Clarksville.
In his suit, Dyer argued that the Howard County school board held closed meetings without public notice in spring 2000 and discussed topics that included a $16,000 annuity to former superintendent Michael E. Hickey. The school board argued that it was using the "executive function" exemption in the state open meetings law, which allows closed meetings for some administrative purposes.
The board, whose actions were reviewed by the Open Meetings Law Compliance Board twice but was largely exonerated, has decided that it will no longer hold executive function meetings.
"We've moved on to other more pressing issues," said school board member Sandra H. French. "Our board has tried scrupulously to have all discussion in public. If [the bill] had passed, we would comply. We haven't been doing anything differently anyway."