A surprise was tucked away in the 16 veto messages issued last week by Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.: a veto of a bill that would have fixed a big hole in Maryland's Open Meetings Act, the law that requires public bodies to conduct their business in public.
The bill was triggered by a court decision in a suit filed by Allen R. Dyer against the Howard County Board of Education. Dyer, an Ellicott City attorney and computer consultant, also is a longtime board antagonist.
In his expansive suit, Dyer has alleged dozens of open-meetings violations by the board, including regular and closed "pre-meetings" before its regular sessions and the conduct of business by e-mail.
Last August Howard County Circuit Judge James B. Dudley dismissed Dyer's complaint because the plaintiff could not demonstrate that he was, to quote the language of the law, "adversely affected" by the closed meetings. Dudley ruled that only those with a "property interest" in an open meeting -- such as a financial interest -- had the right to sue. His ruling potentially bars most citizens from challenging closed meetings.
With that decision, however, Dyer's lawsuit suddenly became a statewide issue. A bipartisan group of 29 legislators introduced bills to remove the "adversely affected" language to make the Open Meetings Act enforceable. The bill was strongly supported by the Open Meetings Compliance Board, which, unfortunately, has no enforcement power. This board twice has cited the Howard board for violating the Open Meetings Act, but its citations could be advisory only.
Few people saw Ehrlich's veto coming. The bill had passed both houses of the legislature unanimously, and the Ehrlich administration had not opposed it. In his veto message, Ehrlich said the bill could result in an increase in litigation, which would cost Maryland time and money. The governor might have been thinking about the $360,000 in taxpayer money that the Howard board spent fighting Dyer's suit. (Ironically, Dyer is fighting this expenditure too, because the board's lawyer was not hired at an open meeting.)
The governor's antipathy to the bill may stem partly from the strong media support for the Open Meetings Act. A dozen news outlets have filed friend-of-the-court briefs in support of Dyer's lawsuit. After 18 months in office, Ehrlich professes not to read newspapers, complaining that the coverage is negative and that his name is often misspelled. He has not yet accepted the fact that bad press is an occupational hazard for governors.
Meanwhile, Dyer appealed the court decision, and a three-judge panel of the Court of Special Appeals heard arguments on May 6. Whether or not that appeals court reverses the lower court decision, the legislature appears poised to override Ehrlich's veto.
Maryland enacted its first open-meetings law in 1977, when many public bodies conducted business behind closed doors. Public confidence suffered under such a system, and so did the state's reputation. Today, all 50 states have so-called sunshine laws, requiring public bodies to deliberate in public, except when discussing sensitive items such as personnel or litigation.
Despite some flagrant violators such as the Howard board, Maryland's sunshine law has brought about unprecedented public access to government business. It has proven the truth of Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis's oft-quoted observation that "sunlight is the best of disinfectants; electric light is the most efficient policeman."
Despite Ehrlich's veto, Dyer is pressing on with the intensity of Inspector Javert in "Les Miserables." An Air Force Academy graduate and a former Vietnam combat pilot, Dyer is on another kind of mission now -- to enforce strict compliance with the state's sunshine law. Just a year ago, he persuaded the legislature to close another loophole that the Howard school board had been using to circumvent the Open Meetings Act.
Dyer insists his crusade is not personal. "I happen to live in Howard County," he says, "so I'm active here. If I lived somewhere else, it would have been that board of education."
With all the taxpayer money it spent defending its closed meetings, the Howard County Board of Education might have found it cheaper to buy Mr. Dyer a home in another county. Far easier, though, it could have saved its constituents $360,000 by obeying the law and opening its doors.
The writer is a lawyer in Greenbelt who served for 16 years in the Maryland legislature. His email address is email@example.com.