- The Washington Times - Monday, November 25, 2002

COLUMBIA, Md. (AP) Howard County Board of Education members are considering asking for legislation to enable them, and other county school boards, to operate in secret.
They are proposing the repeal of local laws that require open meetings.
Delegate Elizabeth Bobo, Howard County Democrat, said she strongly opposes the idea.
"They've had too many closed meetings in the last several years, anyway," she said. "What are they trying to hide?"
But school board Chairman Jane B. Schuchardt said the board wants the change for "housekeeping" purposes, not more secrecy.
"It's really nothing," she said. "It just lets us do the things we need to do: Sit down with the superintendent and talk about what goes on in a school or letters from parents or just get information."
The board hopes to do away with three laws in the state's education code that govern open-meeting and record-keeping practices.
Two of the provisions apply specifically to the Howard County board, but the third applies to all local boards and could change the nature of private meetings across the state.
Removing these laws would allow the board to take advantage of an "executive function" exemption in the state Open Meetings Act.
That allows for private sessions of public bodies with no community notice and no record-keeping.
"There are those who characterize it as an enormous loophole," said Assistant Attorney General Jack Schwartz, who also serves as counsel to the State Open Meetings Compliance Board.
The exemption was originally put in the law to take care of the needs of governing bodies of small jurisdictions "where the same group of folks is both the legislative body, like the town council, and the executive," Mr. Schwartz said.
The exemption was created from the thinking that small-town officials shouldn't have to be burdened with all of the procedures that go along with the open-meetings requirements when they are just doing managerial functions.
But the exemption has been embraced by many public bodies of all sizes.
It says the Open Meetings Act does not apply in certain situations, namely "the application of an already established law or policy," according the compliance board manual.
"If they repeal the laws, the Board of Education for Howard County would not have to conduct all of its business in the open, which the current law says," said Allen Dyer, an Ellicott City lawyer and parent who is suing the board in county circuit court on accusations of open-meetings violations.
"The executive function eliminates any and all accountability to the public. There would be no minutes, no recording, no nothing," he said.
The board is seeking increased privacy at a time when it faces criticism from legislators and from residents for actions taken behind closed doors.
That includes preliminary agreement on an expensive employment extension offer to Superintendent John R. O'Rourke.
"We have laws for a reason," said Delegate Frank Turner, Howard County Democrat.
"The school board ought to start following them," Mr. Turner said.
The board could ask for legislation to change the law, if board members act at their meeting tomorrow, Mr. Turner said.


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