Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Star Chambers of Annapolis

Maryland’s Open Meetings Act, originally passed in 1977, is one of the state’s greatest laws. The act requires multi-member public bodies with a quorum to open their meetings to the citizenry and give them reasonable advance notice of their date, location and time. The statute is generally observed at the state, county and municipal levels with occasional violations subject to investigation by a compliance board. But there is at least one institution in the state that often violates the spirit of the law with no consequence:

The committees of the General Assembly.

Maryland’s General Assembly operates under a strong committee system. Every state legislator is assigned to one committee. That committee’s Chair runs the meetings and schedules consideration and votes on bills. Some committees have sub-committees with their own Chairs. The committees are the location of much of the action in the legislature. They are where the bills are studied and debated, testimony is heard and amendments are usually considered (although floor amendments are also possible). Bills pass, change and fail in committee. If a bill cannot emerge from its committee with a favorable report, it almost always dies.

Technically speaking, committee meetings are open to the public. But some committees discourage attendance at their work sessions, especially by bill advocates. It is common knowledge in the capital’s lobbying community that some Chairs will not hold votes or discussion on bills if their advocates are watching. There is never any official admonition, but merely a long-standing culture that direct observation of the legislative process is discouraged. One lobbyist tells us, “Anyone who operates in Annapolis does not recognize the difference between discouraged and forbidden.”

Those who violate the informal rule are sometimes met with an angry stare, a refusal to consider the bill in front of the violator or even a dead bill. One legislator laughs, “You can come, but you’ll be punished. They will exact street justice on you! It’s a control mechanism they use to allow bills to be killed without paying a political price.” Two old Annapolis veterans tell us it has been this way “forever.”

Another tactic used to discourage observers is snap meetings. Some committee Chairs announce their meetings on the floor, which is open to the public, but do it on short notice. Others just do it on the fly. Out-of-the-way rooms may be picked and agendas may or may not be released. Bill advocates sometimes do not know when their bills are considered and discover their fate after the fact. Subcommittee details can be even harder to discover. While committee votes are recorded (but not released on the Internet), subcommittee votes are not. Part of the lack of notice is due to the madhouse quality of some periods of the General Session, especially near the end. But some Chairs make no effort to inform the public of their committees’ activities ahead of time.

The consequences of access problems are significant. Committee votes may be recorded but deliberations are not. Lobbyists and advocates cannot witness the give and take between legislators as they discuss a bill. As one lobbyist puts it, “You don’t know who screwed you.” One legislator refers to the Chair’s “drawer,” a black hole in which doomed bills are deposited without the knowledge of their advocates. Another legislator tells us, “We have an open meetings act in Maryland for a reason and the committees should comply with its provisions. The unwritten policy of discouraging members of the public from watching voting sessions is more about protecting weak, spineless committee members than it is about serving any legitimate public interest.”

Not all committees operate in this way. We hear that some of the more open ones include Senate Finance (chaired by Senator Mac Middleton), Senate Budget and Taxation (chaired by Senator Ulysses Currie) and House Ways and Means (chaired by Delegate Sheila Hixson). Montgomery County Delegation meetings are open to the public and can be well-attended. The press go wherever they want, assuming they can find out where the committee meetings are and what they are working on.

Delegate Saqib Ali (D-39) was the only legislator to comment on these practices on-the-record. When I asked him whether some committees discouraged public attendance, he replied:

It is true. It is one of the irksome things about Annapolis. At least now the House (but not the Senate) make videos of bill hearings available over the Intranet. But still, voting sessions are not available. And the presence of advocates or interested parties during voting sessions can often get a bill killed.

We ought to be encouraging transparency and accountability, not discouraging it. The New York State Senate just launched a state-of-the-art new website that allows unprecedented public participation in the legislative process. We would do well to emulate them in this regard.... and that's about the ONLY thing we should copy about the New York State Senate!!
Another example for the legislature is the Montgomery County Council. All council and committee meeting agendas are posted on the council’s website, often a week or more in advance. All staff memos and documents are also posted on the website. Members of the public are never discouraged from attending. A bill advocate can follow legislation through committee all the way to the final vote with no pushback. It is simply the culture of the place.

Ultimately, this issue comes down to whether the General Assembly will obey the spirit of Maryland’s Open Meetings Act and adhere to the values of free and fair democracy. Running a committee is a challenging job, especially in the last chaotic weeks of a General Session. Last-minute changes and quick meetings are inevitable. But the committee Chairs, and their supervisors in leadership, must make every effort to protect the right of the public to watch them deliberate at every level.

Dear readers, we are going to stay on this issue until we see some improvement. The state legislators should learn to enjoy the sunshine because, ray by ray, it will come in.