After Charles County commissioners President Murray D. Levy (D-At Large) discussed an award the county had won for its Web site, he wrapped up the morning session quickly.
"We're going to take a break," he said last week before banging the gavel. "The rest of the day's appointments are in closed session."
The day's agenda indicated that the commissioners would close the doors to discuss land acquisition and appointments, have a "legal session" and meet with the Economic Development Commission about a business wishing to move to the county.
Private meetings are common at all levels of government, and the county commissioners are no exception. From January to April -- the most recent period for which minutes are available -- the commissioners closed meetings to the public at least 25 times, not including executive lunches. The Maryland open meetings law allows the commissioners to meet privately to discuss 14 broad topics, including those on last week's agenda, as long as there is a written statement explaining the reason and providing a list of topics, a vote to close the meeting, and minutes recording the vote and listing the topics and actions taken.
But the minutes record a vote being taken to go into closed session in five of 25 closed meetings. A citation of the portion of the open meetings law that justified the closure was provided in two instances. In the meetings with businesses, there is one mention of unnamed economic development officials, but no other participants are listed.
The only information available to the public about these meetings comes from the agendas before they begin and the minutes afterward. Tuesday's 11 a.m. agenda item said "Appointments" and "All or portions of this session may be closed."
William Varga, an assistant state attorney general, said that when closing a meeting to the public, some substantive explanation must be given as to what the meeting is about and why it is closed.
"If you simply say 'personnel matters,' that's not sufficient," he said.
County Administrator Eugene T. Lauer said he is diligent about following the proper procedures for closing a meeting. "I'm not saying on occasion that hasn't been short-circuited," he said. "But we try to do it pretty religiously."
The state open meetings law was strengthened in 1991 to restrict legislators to certain topics -- including personnel, investments and criminal or legal issues -- if they met in private. Over the years, St. Mary's and Calvert counties have faced questions about government meetings held in private.
In Charles, the minutes of the economic development sessions sometimes provide a clue to the content, such as for a meeting March 30, in which they said that "an engineering firm discussed its strategic growth plan and targets . . . and its desire to locate in the La Plata area." Other times, the record is more vague. An economic development meeting last August was closed to discuss "a business" wishing to move to Charles.
Officials say private economic development meetings are necessary to protect a company's proprietary information during negotiations with the commissioners.
"We are asking them about revenues, prior business relationships they've had in similar deals. . . . Nobody wants those things disclosed in public," Levy said. "Nothing that we're saying will not be brought to light at a proper time when these things are at a point when they can be made public."
The Economic Development Commission will request that a meeting with the commissioners be closed if they are discussing a sensitive topic, said executive director Aubrey Edwards. He said the public has no right to know about negotiations with companies until they are completed. "You don't see people upset about that. Nobody's clamoring to know" about business negotiations with the government, he said.
A few years ago, a New Jersey business was considering moving to Charles, but word got out during negotiations, the employees got angry, and the deal fell through, he said.
"It upset the whole apple cart, just for a story," he said. "I don't think that it's important that the public know the proprietary information of a company. If they come here and make that decision, then we make it public. Until they make that decision, we don't make it public."