Public Left Out of Process
March 7, 2011
An Associated Press report last week noting the secret workings of the state legislature should be a concern for anyone who believes in open government, or has taken time out from their busy schedules to go to Annapolis and testify about proposed legislation in front of a committee.
In reality, that testimony oftentimes means little because decisions are made in back rooms, behind closed doors, with only special interests represented.
The AP report highlighted secret "stakeholder" meetings on a bill that would allow the shipping of wine to homes from wineries. It noted that Sen. Joan Carter Conway, D-Baltimore, brought together those supporting and opposing the bill in two secret meetings. The first meeting an AP reporter was allowed to attend. The second meeting the reporter was denied access.
State law allows for lawmakers, or any government body for that matter, to bypass the state's Open Meetings Act in this way. Our own board of commissioners, town and city councils could do the same as long as there was not a quorum of elected members present.
In this case, those participating used the same tired excuse that it is easier to have discussions without the bothersome public listening in. It is an affront to anyone who has ever traveled to Annapolis to testify on a bill before the legislature, and it demonstrates just how little these public hearings often mean at the end of the day when votes are being taken, especially if decisions on compromises have already been made in secret meetings.
If those supporting or opposing a bill honestly believe that they have a solid case, then all discussions should be made in the open, with the public invited to at least listen in, if not outright participate.
Lawmakers are doing a disservice to voters by closing them out of any aspect of the decision-making process, and they are leaving open the door to questions about tradeoffs, kickbacks or other quid-pro-quo activities that may be taking place behind those closed doors.
Maryland, as well as many of its local government bodies, like to profess support of openness and accountability to taxpayers. But in reality, the state's Open Meetings Act allows them plenty of opportunity to shut out the public from important debates and, as evidenced by the AP report, it is opportunity that those in power use whenever it suits their interests. We need to strengthen our laws concerning open government, and we need to be able to hold