Watered down Open Meetings bill gets preliminary approval in House

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Same-sex marriage bill debated on the floor of the House of Delegates.Two bills to beef up requirements of the Open Meetings Act got preliminary approval in the House of Delegates Wednesday, but one had been watered down in the Health and Government Operations Committee.

Del. Dan Morhaim’s bill to increase potential penalties for illegally closing meetings were reduced and any fines imposed would be imposed on the public body as a whole, not the individual members. The fine, which is now capped at $100, would range from $250 to $1,000.

Morhaim had originally proposed fines of $1,000 to $10,000 on individual members of the offending body. The Baltimore County delegate said the amendments were made at the request of the Maryland Association of Counties and the Maryland Municipal League.

Despite those changes, Morhaim said the bill contained two significant improvements in the law.

One would require that the public body acknowledge its violation of the Open Meetings Act at its next public meeting and that a majority of the public body’s members must sign and return to the Open Meetings Compliance Board a copy of the board’s opinion finding a violation. These new provision are intended to “shame” the public body into future compliance with the act.

Another provision would allow the findings of the Open Meetings Compliance Board to be admitted in evidence for any lawsuit filed over a violation.

Training course required

The House also approved a bill by House Minority Leader Tony O’Donnell that requires at least one member of a public body or its staff to take the online training course on the Open Meetings Act. The two-hour course explains how the act works, the requirements for public notice of a meeting and the other provisions in the law.

At least one group that had supported Morhaim’s original bill was unhappy with the changes.

In an email message sent to the members of the House of Delegates, Nancy Soreng, the president of the League of Women Voters in Maryland, complained “that the bill has been amended so that not only would the Attorney General be required to defend the body that violated the law, but the taxpayers who were wronged in the first place would be required to pay the fine.”

“There is no justice in fining people who broke no law and letting lawbreakers go penalty free,” Soreng said.  “We urge the House of Delegates to prevent this egregious outcome by amending HB 331 to make it clear that the members of the offending body pay the fine.”

However, having passed its second reading, the bill is no longer open to amendment in the House, which will take a final vote on the bill shortly.

–Len Lazarick