Editorial: Let the sunshine in

A closed meeting by any other name is still a closed meeting.

And if it involves public officials doing the public’s business, a closed meeting is still an insult to our democratic process.

The latest example of elected officials dodging the state open meetings law comes to us courtesy of some fine reporting by Tom LoBianco of the Associated Press.

Mr. LoBianco found that state Sen. Joan Carter Conway, D-Baltimore, chairwoman of the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, had convened two undisclosed “stakeholder meetings” in her committee room where lobbyists had a private audience with legislators to negotiate the details of hotly contested legislation that would allow direct shipping from wineries, but not retailers, to consumers. Similar legislation has been stalled for two years.

This year, Ms. Conway has apparently decided that some form of the bill will get through her committee. But as to the details of that bill, well, that needs to be discussed in secret, it would seem.

Mr. LoBianco was admitted to the first of the two “stakeholder meetings,” both of which occurred weeks before the bill’s public hearing. But when he showed up for the second “stakeholder meeting,” the committee room doors were locked.

“That’s not a public meeting and you’re not allowed in unless we say so,” Ms. Conway told the AP reporter after the meeting.

Another legislator made the familiar argument that secrecy promotes candor.

“The retailers and the other interested parties wanted to have an opportunity to talk in front of the chair, and it’s probably easier, to be honest, without an audience,” said Del. Jolene Ivey, D-Prince George’s, a sponsor of the bill.

Yes, it can be easier to be honest without an audience. That’s exactly why an audience of public and press, not fellow lobbyists, is absolutely necessary. People can be held accountable for comments made in public. Comments made behind closed doors stay behind closed doors. Public accountability suffers as a result.

What makes this behavior especially galling is that is apparently perfectly legal because the gatherings were not official meetings of public bodies. Maryland’s sunshine law is fairly typical of other states in this regard, although some, including Colorado and Florida, require open meetings when as few as two lawmakers convene, Mr. LoBianco reported.

It’s time for Maryland to revisit its sunshine law and update its provisions to cover the new generation of political chicanery being employed by our legislators.

Of course, if our elected officials would devote the same energy to making good public policy that they spend on finding new ways to circumvent laws designed to make them conduct the public’s business in public, we wouldn’t need to keep toughening our sunshine laws. Is that too much to ask?

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