In a recent letter to the editor, the writer stated that the St. Mary’s County Open Meetings Law “... enactment was made necessary by political corruption in the county government.” Such is far from being a factual statement. Alleged “political corruption” had nothing to do with the origins of the law, rather it was merely due to the common belief among the then county commissioners (Manning McKay, Dr. J. Patrick Jarboe, John K. Parlett Sr., Larry Millison and Ford L. Dean) at the time that the operation of county government should be in a transparent manner.
The concept of the open meetings law was proposed by the County Journalists Association, with which the county commissioners readily agreed.
From January 1975 to December 1986 it was my privilege to serve as a member of the board of St. Mary’s commissioners. There is now a proposal by the current commissioners to ask the Maryland General Assembly to rescind the St. Mary’s County Open Meetings Law, which was enacted in 1975.
I believe it to be pertinent to share some of the historical perspective as to the purpose of our open meetings law and how it came into being. In this regard, stated below is a portion of an article which appeared in the July 29, 1976, edition of The Enterprise newspaper:
“This newspaper endorsed the passage of the St. Mary’s County open meetings law when it was first proposed last year. The bill was passed by both houses of the state General Assembly, signed by Governor Mandel and took effect July 1.
The open meetings law is a law for the people of St. Mary’s County. It’s a law that makes it mandatory that county government operate in the open, with penalties provided for those who would try and circumvent the legislation.”
Our open meetings law did not originate as a “top-down” law — i.e., one imposed by the state General Assembly on local government, rather it originated from the “bottom up” — i.e., proposed by the county commissioners and included in the local legislative package submitted to our legislative delegation.
Your board has asked the legislative delegation to declare the county open meetings law null and void, among the reasons cited being: Unlike in 1976, there is now in force a statewide open meetings law, which is less stringent than the county one; and that it is difficult/complex to operate in St. Mary’s when there are two open meetings laws by which county government has to abide. I fail to see the ‘difficulty/complexity’ of the latter stated reason as it is generally understood that in such case when there are two different laws in effect, the principle is that the more stringent law is to be followed.
For the 11 years the county boards of commissioners of which I was a member had to abide by the St. Mary’s County Open Meetings Law. County government had no problems operating and adhering to the spirit and intent of our open meetings law. Having stated this, I do not harbor the view that once a law is passed that it should never be reviewed for determining if amendments thereto are warranted.
In public life, optics are important. The optics of the commissioners proposing the abolishment of the county open meetings law are not favorable to the members of the board. Such can conjure up in the collective minds of the people such questions as to their motives and their real basis for such action. After all, as stated in the above quoted Enterprise article: “The open meetings law is a law for the people of St. Mary’s County.”