City panels deliberate at sites that discourage participation; Officials say sessions promote debate
by Laura Vozzella and Doug Donovan
In Baltimore City Hall, where the workings of government are promoted as “open and transparent,” there are meetings where John Q. Public can watch city officials in action.
And then there are the “premeetings.” The City Council lunches. The mayor’s lunches.
Those are the places where the real work of Baltimore’s elected officials often gets done — places citizens can’t easily get into, if they even knew where to go.
Held in rooms barely big enough for officials to squeeze in, sometimes behind locked doors, these gatherings are no longer closed to the media but are all but off-limits to the public.
Critics say officials are making decisions in secret meetings, then rubber-stamping them in public. An assistant attorney general, while refusing to discuss the city’s specific actions, said holding meetings in rooms where the public is unwelcome or unable to fit violates the spirit of the state’s Open Meetings Act.
“They are afraid to debate in public,” said Joan Floyd, a Remington neighborhood activist and Green Party candidate for council president this fall. “We are not children. We can handle controversy.”
City officials stand by the tradition of the premeeting — a forum that they say promotes frank discussion while not officially excluding the public.
“We’re a pretty open city government,” said Mayor Martin O’Malley, who ran for office five years ago on a promise of open government.
He said the premeetings encourage “a free exchange of ideas that is open and honest and candid, especially without the fear of your remarks being [taken] out of context.”
The Board of Estimates, the spending board that signs off on the city’s big-ticket purchases, holds its official meeting at 9 a.m. every Wednesday in a large chamber on the second floor of City Hall.
But the five-member board actually convenes at 8:30 a.m. for what is known as the pre- or “minimeeting.”
Just off the chamber, the members and their top aides meet in a room just large enough for the table for 12 where they sit. Another dozen chairs are crammed around the perimeter of the room. City staff usually take up all but two or three of those seats. The rest are usually claimed by reporters, who were barred until the late 1980s or early 1990s. There is virtually no room to stand.
The door between the chamber, where a couple dozen people usually gather for the official meeting, and the smaller room is left open. Private citizens interested in observing the premeeting could, at least in theory, claim a chair simply by being an early bird. But they would risk getting the third degree — or worse.
A high school intern who once accompanied a Sun reporter to a premeeting was ordered to give up his seat by Council President Sheila Dixon, who heads the board. She told him he was taking up a spot that belonged to a “real” person.
Public meetings must be held in rooms big enough to accommodate the number of people who are reasonably expected to attend, said Jack Schwartz, an assistant attorney general and counsel to the state’s Open Meetings Compliance Board.
“That doesn’t mean you have to have a meeting in Ravens stadium just in case 50,000 people show up,” said Schwartz, who was speaking generally and declined to comment about Baltimore’s practices. “But you can’t meet in a broom closet either.”
The cramped quarters and cold reception haven’t deterred every would-be observer. Leonard J. Kerpelman, an activist from Northwest Baltimore, is a regular at Board of Estimates meetings. In May, he took along his video camera and tried to film the proceedings for public access television. A loud argument ensued.
“Get him out of here now, because if I have to put my hands on him, I’m gonna be in trouble,” Dixon said before police escorted him from the room.
The city has allowed Kerpelman to film at subsequent meetings. But he complains that the mayor’s office, which manages the public access station, does not air the material.
“I want to show the contrast of what goes on in the premeeting, which is really a secret meeting, compared to what they do out here” in public, he said.
No public discussion
Unlike the premeeting, where questions about items are aired, the public portion of the meeting often consists of little or no discussion. The board votes on hundreds of items in one fell swoop, with only those considered “non-routine” taken up in public. Sometimes every non-routine item is moved to the “routine” portion of the agenda in the premeeting, so nothing is discussed in public.
There is a similar contrast between meetings of the full City Council and the luncheons held hours before the Monday night sessions. While bills are often passed at the meetings without debate, members use the lunches to discuss legislation to be introduced that evening.
The lunch meetings sometimes take place on the fourth floor of City Hall, in a room with a few extra chairs. The press is allowed inside and the doors are kept open, so someone sitting in a nearby lounge could listen in.
But that is not the case when the mayor hosts the council lunch, which happens about once a month. The mayor’s lunch takes place in a conference room off his second-floor offices, behind a locked door that opens only when O’Malley’s receptionist buzzes someone in.
The luncheons hosted by the mayor had been private until Sun reporters on two occasions — in 1996 and last year — challenged the legality of closing the sessions.
These days, the press is allowed in. But the public is not — at least not without a fight. When reporters were buzzed into the room several months ago, a member of the public walked in with them. The mayor’s staff quickly quizzed Doug Armstrong — a Remington activist who is married to Floyd, the candidate for council president — about who he was and what he was doing there.
They also accused a reporter of “smuggling” in Armstrong. He was escorted out, but eventually allowed back inside.
The public, not just the media, has a right to attend when a public body meets for official business, Schwartz said. There are limited exceptions, such as when litigation is discussed, but those did not apply the day Armstrong showed up.
“The press has no special access,” Schwartz said. “Open means open. Open means open in a practical way. Nobody has to explain why they come to a public meeting. They don’t have to have a reason that satisfies the members of the public body. They don’t have to have a reason. They’re entitled to look.”
To be sure, the city has allowed more sunshine into City Hall in recent decades.
When William Donald Schaefer was mayor, from 1971 to 1987, the council and Board of Estimates would meet privately to discuss the budget, said Mary Pat Clarke, then a councilwoman who became council president. Schaefer could not be reached for comment.
“It was a big, big deal when budget meetings were opened to the public,” said Clarke, a current council candidate who as president opened the council lunches and persuaded then-Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke to let the media into Board of Estimates premeetings.
Just last month, the council began having its committees take public votes for the first time. In a pending lawsuit, Floyd complains that the previous practice violated the state’s Open Meetings Act.
Until now, the committees — including the Land Use and Planning Committee that approved a parking lot Floyd objects to in her neighborhood — held public hearings on council bills but did not vote at those sessions. Instead, the committee chairman circulated a piece of paper, with members indicating “yea” or “nay” with signatures.
The public committee votes will enable the council to “operate things as transparently as possible,” Dixon said.
But issues of openness, in meetings and in records, remain.
The city has not responded to several requests from The Sun, made under the state’s public records act, for documents related to O’Malley’s travel, the mayor’s correspondence with his minority business office and Police Commissioner Kevin P. Clark’s e-mails. Those requests date to May and June. Under state law, the city had 30 days to reply.
The city also has declined to release a report on an investigation into a May domestic dispute between Clark and his girlfriend. The city maintains that the report is a personnel record and not subject to disclosure. After The Sun and WBAL-TV filed a lawsuit, a Baltimore Circuit Court judge ordered the city to make the report public last month. The city appealed, and the Court of Special Appeals is to hold a hearing this month.
Even when meetings are open, people who attend are often in the dark if they weren’t privy to the “pre” portion.
During the Board of Estimates premeeting, members talk over any agenda items about which they have questions. Often they summon city staff into the small room to answer questions.
At a recent premeeting of the board, Dixon called for the city’s Recreation and Parks director to discuss a $973,000 grant that the board was set to approve. Director Kimberley Amprey Flowers entered the room with two staff members and together they explained how some of the money would be used to develop after-school programs at seven recreation centers throughout the city.
The two dozen people who attended the official meeting later that morning never got that explanation. With the board’s questions answered in the back room, the grant was deemed “routine” along with every other item on the 73-page agenda.
The public portion of the meeting lasted no more than three minutes. Once the members gathered at their seats in the chamber, city Solicitor Ralph S. Tyler made a motion to adopt the routine agenda. O’Malley seconded the motion and the board approved it.
A done deal
Not one word was uttered about any contract, purchase or grant.
Flowers did not even attend the official meeting. After the premeeting, Dixon told her there was no need to wait. The grant, she said, was a done deal.
October 11, 2004