A Maryland delegate wants tougher enforcement for the state’s open meetings laws.
Del. Dan K. Morhaim (D-Dist. 11) of Owings Mills is proposing legislation that would give Maryland’s Open Meetings Compliance Board the power to crack down and impose fines on public bodies that violate the law by closing proceedings that should stay open.
“Enforcements and penalties get people’s attention,” Morhaim said.
The legislation was prompted by several recent events that raised questions about open-meetings compliance, such as the decision by the University System of Maryland Board of Regents for the school to join the “Big Ten” athletic conference, Morhaim said. The proposal wasn’t intended to single out any particular organization, he stressed.
Morhaim’s proposal, which is still being drafted, would allow the board to impose a fine of up to $1,000 for a first violation and up to $10,000 if a second violation occurs within three years.
“A thousand-dollar fine won’t put any agency out of business,” Morhaim said. “That’s not the intent.”
The three-member board, which is appointed by the governor and meets annually, currently can only issue advisory opinions after receiving complaints. It has no power to issue orders or impose penalties on public bodies, which range from state agencies to municipal councils.
The Attorney General’s Office, in conjunction with the University of Maryland, offers a free online course on the state’s Open Meetings Act, so public officials shouldn’t be able to say they weren’t aware of the law or its provisions, Morhaim said.
The proposal also would require the offending bodies to publicly acknowledge a violation, something not currently required, he said.
The changes would bring Maryland more in line with states like Connecticut and Oregon, both of which have independent boards that can impose penalties for open-meeting violations.
Connecticut’s Freedom of Information Commission can impose a fine of between $20 and $1,000, while Oregon’s State Ethics Commission can impose a fine of up to $1,000.
In many states, violations are reported directly to the attorney general for investigation.
Under current Maryland law, violators of the Open Meetings Act can face a civil penalty of up to $100.
“The more teeth that [such open-meetings boards] have, the more effective they can be,” said Marc Carmanica, freedom of information director for the nonprofit Reporters’ Committee for the Freedom of the Press. “Agencies and public bodies will take them more seriously.”
Having an independent board to review such violations – rather than simply relying on the court system – also encourages individuals to report potential violations because it eliminates the costs associated with filing a lawsuit, Carmanica said.