- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 25, 2004

ANNAPOLIS — Maryland lawmakers returning to the state capital this week for an emergency session on medical malpractice insurance reform will also have to address the vetoes Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. cast earlier this year.

One of them ended legislation that would have given more people standing to sue under the Open Meetings Act.

Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican, said changing the meetings law would open the courts to frivolous lawsuits.

The legislation was prompted by a lower court case that denied standing to a Howard County man trying to sue the county school board.

Mr. Ehrlich vetoed the legislation after it easily passed the Senate and the House.

Sen. Brian E. Frosh, Montgomery County Democrat and lead sponsor of the legislation, now predicts an easy override.

The bill won 43 votes in the Senate in February, more than the 29 needed for a veto override. In April, House members voted 163-3 in favor of the bill, with only 85 needed for an override.

“This is not a bill that raised difficult issues,” said Allen Dyer, an attorney whose lawsuit against the Howard County school board prompted the legislation.

Mr. Dyer said he found out in 2000 that the school board was meeting behind closed doors before its regularly scheduled meetings.

Maryland’s Open Meetings Act allows people to file a circuit court lawsuit if they are “adversely affected” by a closed meeting. A circuit court judge ruled that Mr. Dyer, though his daughter was a high school freshman in the county school system, didn’t have standing to sue because he was adversely affected no more than other residents. The Maryland Court of Special Appeals is reviewing the case.

The lower court ruling misses the point of the Open Meetings Act, Mr. Frosh said.

“If you only have a remedy when you have a monetary interest in the outcome or an interest that is somehow different from everyone else, the general public doesn’t get the benefit of the open meetings law,” he said.

The new legislation “clarified” the state law by removing the phrase “adversely affected,” so that anyone can file suit when they feel the law has been violated, regardless of their standing, supporters said.

Henry Fawell, a spokesman for Mr. Ehrlich, reiterated the governor’s written statement from when he submitted the veto — that the bills would make the act so broadly enforceable that residents could even sue officials in counties in which they don’t live.

Mr. Ehrlich also stated a flood of lawsuits would eat up county and municipal governments’ staff time and money, especially at a time of limited resources when they are struggling to meet educational and other demands.

The governor also said existing law allows those with grievances to file complaints with the State Open Meetings Law Compliance Board, a three-member advisory panel.

“While the board’s opinions are advisory only, it does provide a forum for any person to highlight potential violations by a public body,” Mr. Ehrlich wrote.

Supporters of the bills dispute the idea that broadening the law would bring a flood of lawsuits.

“The Open Meetings Act has existed for decades, and there has not been a flood of litigation,” Mr. Frosh said. He also said meetings will be closed all the time if the act cannot be enforced.

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