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Editorial: Time to strengthen Maryland’s open meetings laws

There are two bills in Annapolis this year that are getting little, if any, attention, but a recent state review panel decision ought to make some legislators take a closer look at ongoing efforts to strengthen Maryland’s open meetings laws.

This week, the Open Meetings Compliance Board ruled that the state university system’s Board of Regents failed to give required public notice and failed to follow proper procedure in two November meetings in which they discussed the University of Maryland’s controversial move to the Big Ten athletic conference.

For many Maryland sports fans, the Board of Regents’ decision sparked memories of the Baltimore Colts’ infamous late-night escape to Indianapolis — the difference being that in this case, according to the compliance board, the public had a definitive legal right to know.

In December, university system Chancellor William E. Kirwan told The Baltimore Sun that officials were “chastened and regretful for not doing our duties” with regard to the secret meetings.

Putting aside the personal feelings of those in power at the University of Maryland for a moment, the bottom line is that the law governing open meetings was broken and there are few, if any, ramifications for those who broke it.

Ultimately, this week’s ruling will not affect the move to the Big Ten. And there is no punishment for the lawbreakers, although there could be a fine if they are sued for their actions.

That penalty? A whopping $100 each.

For some perspective, compare that with the amount the university, a founding Atlantic Coast Conference member in 1953, might have to pay as a result of a lawsuit by the ACC. The conference is seeking a $50 million exit fee for the university system’s actions.

Anyone think that might jack up tuition rates just a bit? Or Terps ticket prices? Or myriad other university fees?

The suit is pending in North Carolina’s courts, but back in Maryland, there are concrete steps lawmakers can take in the coming weeks to help prevent these types of acts — ones that are far too common and, as a whole, dismissive of the public’s rights and role in public actions.

The first bill would, among other measures, substantially increase the amount of money Maryland residents could recover in open meetings lawsuits. Instead of the current $100 maximum, the minimum penalty would be $1,000; the maximum would be $10,000.

The second bill would require certain government employees to undergo Open Meetings Act training.

Unfortunately, a third bill that called for a range of monetary penalties for violations (without having to go to court) has already been killed by the Health and Government Operations Committee this year.

Perhaps the scariest part regarding the legislature’s failure to act is that lawmakers who are doing public (and that word should not be taken lightly) work are reluctant to hold themselves accountable to the very constituents who elected them.

Without some teeth to the Open Meetings Act, Marylanders can continue to expect brazen violations of what should be sacred compacts between voters and those in powerful positions.

Then again, maybe feeling chastened and regretful is enough punishment to give those in seats of power some pause before doing the people’s business in secret. Maybe.