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Legislation would create fines for violating Open Meetings Act

ANNAPOLIS — Del. Dan K. Morhaim, chairman of the Government Operations subcommittee, plans on introducing a bill to beef up the regulatory powers of the Open Meetings Compliance Board, allowing it to fine public bodies for illegally closing meetings.

The civil penalties could be up to $1,000 for the first offense and up to $10,000 for a third offense. Even if the board chooses not to impose the fines, the members of any public body violating the act would have to personally sign an acknowledgement that the Open Meetings board had ruled against them. The findings of the three-member board could also be admitted as evidence in a lawsuit.

“Currently their opinions are only advisory and tend to be ignored,” said Morhaim, a Baltimore County Democrat. He pointed out there is a new, online course on the workings of Open Meetings Act “so excuses of not knowing the act are less convincing.”

Citizens who responded to MarylandReporter’s requests for comments on problems with the Open Meetings Act said the lack of any penalties for violating the law was the biggest problem with the current law.

Morhaim also serves on the Joint Committee on Transparency and Open Government, which held a hearing on the act in November.

Morhaim followed up that hearing with research of his own, and found that the violations of the act, based on citizen complaints, were often handled entirely by attorneys, with little direct involvement of the members of the public body that may have violated the act. Under his proposal, the members would have to acknowledge the ruling on the closing of the meeting, and “that just makes it a little more tangible.”

“It’s time for a little bit of enforcement,” Morhaim said.

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