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Governor vetoes bill expanding rights to sue under open meetings law

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Governor vetoes bill expanding rights to sue under open meetings law

  • Despite nearly unanimous approval of a bill by both chambers of the legislature, Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich Jr. vetoed the effort to significantly expanded people’s right to sue under the state’s Open Meetings Act.

June 4, 2004 — Citing a likelihood of increased lawsuits, Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich Jr. vetoed a bill last week that would have allowed any person to file a suit alleging a violation of the state Open Meetings Act.

The vetoed bill would have revised the act to allow “any person” to have standing to file a lawsuit, as opposed to only people “adversely affected” by closed meetings. The legislation was passed in the Senate, 43-1, and in the House, 136-3.

“An increase in litigation would require local boards of education and county and municipal governments to devote staff time and money for litigation expenses to defend against complaints,” Ehrlich, a Republican, stated in his veto message May 25. “At a time of limited resources, when local governments are struggling to meet local needs . . . it would be inappropriate to impose those added litigation costs on our local public bodies.”

The bill was created in response to a circuit court ruling last August in which the judge ruled that a resident lacked standing to sue a school board because he had not been “adversely affected.”

The plaintiff in that case, Allen R. Dyer, sued the Howard County Board of Education alleging multiple open meetings violations, including closed pre-meetings and the conduct of board business by private e-mail. Judge James B. Dudley of Circuit Court in Ellicott City ruled that “adversely affected” applied only to people who had lost income or property value from a violation of the act. Dudley took that definition from a zoning code case.

News coverage of Dyer’s appeal to a three-judge panel of the Court of Special Appeals brought to the legislature’s attention weakness in the act’s procedural language for challenging closed meetings. The appeals court heard arguments May 6, but has not issued a decision.

The governor’s veto surprised many people who predicted the bill would pass based on the strength of its support from the state legislature and the state Open Meetings Compliance Board, which fields complaints about violations but lacks enforcement power. The bill passed the legislature without much opposition from local governments officials who potentially stand to receive the brunt of open meeting lawsuits. The state attorney general’s office also supported the bill and minimized the cost of such suits on the government.

“This veto was done in pure spite against the press,” said Jim Keat of the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association. “The governor hates The Baltimore Sun and The Washington Post , who supported the bill, along with all the other newspapers in Maryland. There was no substantive valid policy reason and no traditional lobbying groups on such issues opposed the bill.”

Lawmakers can overturn the governor’s veto at their next scheduled legislative session in January. A three-fifths vote by each chamber is required to override a veto.

Editor’s note: Jim Keat’s affiliation was incorrect in the original version of this article. It has been corrected above.

TS


© 2004 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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