COMMENTARY:

Pratt’s Closed Meetings Violate Spirit of Democracy

by Jane Shipley
The fact that the Board of one of Baltimore’s most important public agencies held an illegally closed retreat cannot be discounted as trivial.
       To many Americans (at least before the recent Presidential election), democracy may seem to be robust and well suited to the vicissitudes of modern life. The truth is, however, that democracy is fragile, elusive, and all too prone to being undermined by corruption. Corruption is especially insidious when it violates the laws that defend our civil rights and, thus, define our democracy.

       One such law, Maryland’s Open Meetings Act, requires government agencies to conduct most of their business in public. The state has also created an “Open Meetings Compliance Board” to craft opinions about violations, resolve disputes, and educate public agencies about their duties. Though it has teeth, however, the Compliance Board lacks real bite, because it cannot compel public agencies to obey the law, and its opinion is not admissible in court.

       A Maryland court can nullify any action taken at a willfully illegally closed meeting, but the offending agency can simply hold a subsequent open meeting and reaffirm the action. Thus, even a court decision offers little redress, unless a court order to obey the Open Meetings Act places violators in peril of being held in contempt.

       Joseph H. H. Kaplan, Chief Judge of the Circuit Court for Baltimore City, issued an order to obey to the Board of Trustees and the Board of Directors of the Enoch Pratt Free Library in September 1997 when he decided a suit brought by plaintiffs attempting to save the St. Paul Street library.

       The Pratt’s repeated insistence on private status during that litigation ignored the hard-won court battle waged in the 1940s by the NAACP and Louise Kerr, an African-American, who sought to integrate Pratt’s training course for librarians. After the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Pratt was a “public agency” and, therefore, subject to the 14th Amendment, which provides equal protection under the laws, Pratt’s Trustees promptly shut down the training course.

Pratt Retreat Violated Act

       With the precedent of the Kaplan contempt order in mind, on April 10 this writer filed a complaint with the Open Meetings Compliance Board, questioning whether the Pratt’s Board of Trustees and Board of Directors complied with the Act during a Board retreat on October 20-21, 2000, during which substantive matters involving the library system’s future were discussed in meetings that were closed to the public. On June 21, the Compliance Board issued its finding that the retreat did violate the Act.

       “Although some of the activities at the retreat might have been designed primarily to improve interpersonal relations or otherwise involve social matters, rather than public business,” the Compliance Board opinion reads, “it is patently obvious that other aspects of the retreat did include presentations and discussions about matters of public business.

       “For example, the discussion included priority-setting among the various roles that the Library currently plays and the number and type of facilities most suitable for the future of the Library.”

       Meetings of the formally constituted Finance Committee, created by the Board’s bylaws, were held not to be in violation of the Act because this committee deals only with “executive functions” excluded from the Act, rather than public policy decisions. Meetings of various informally constituted committees held during the retreat were found not to violate the Act because they lacked official status.

       As discussions about closing library branches continue, the Compliance Board’s decision may provide library activists with some leverage with the courts, should it come to that.

       The fact that the Board of one of Baltimore’s most important public agencies held an illegally closed retreat cannot be discounted as trivial.

       The private club atmosphere that led Pratt’s Boards astray has its origins in philanthropist Enoch Pratt’s decision to ask the State to create a self-perpetuating Board of Trustees (originally an all-male group of millionaires) to shelter the library from the corruption plaguing late 19th-century Baltimore politics. Unfortunately, Pratt traded the potential of one form of corruption for the risk of another.

       We recently saw how the remnants of the privileged state of mind have led other public officials to inappropriately, and perhaps illegally, bar members of the public from meetings at City Hall. Presumed privilege is apparently so prevalent in Baltimore City that we likely need a more forceful State law to guard our right to observe our own business being done—a less vague, more inclusive law with some teeth, perhaps one that mandates the unequivocal and immediate removal from office of any scoff-law officials—appointed or elected, paid or volunteer.

       When we defend each and every one of our civil rights—from having every vote counted to insuring that our government agencies conduct the public’s business in the public view, we strengthen our democracy. Unless they operate in a democratic fashion, our public agencies are not only incapable of providing the services that taxpayers want, need, and deserve, they undermine the very principles that guarantee and protect the freedom and equality of us all.

Jane Shipley is a resident of South Charles Village.

 


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This story was published on June 27, 2001.