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Murphy’s Law — Your MDDC Update from Executive Director Jack Murphy for Feb. 28, 2013

Open meetings bills moving in Md. House
By Jack Murphy

Two open meetings bills, which MDDC supported in committee, have been amended and are now on the move. We think both bills continue to deserve our support, even though they have been slightly weakened.
HB 331, sponsored by Del. Dan Morhaim, would strengthen the Open Meetings Compliance Board. It has been changed to reduce the maximum fines to $250 for first offense and $1,000 for subsequent expenses (down from $1,000 and $10,000). The reality is that the fines are never imposed, so their size is of little significance. Other provisions are worth having.
Del. Tony O’Donnell’s HB 139, which would require members of public bodies to get training in the Open Meetings Act, also has been amended. The new language would require either a member, lawyer or other staffer from every public body be trained in the requirements of the bill. While it would not hold the members directly accountable, it is still an improvement on the current state where boards frequently say they did not know they were supposed to meet in public.
MDDC’s panel will testify Thursday against the House version of the bill giving local governments the right to post public notices on their own websites, HB 1136, in the Environmental Matters Committee. Karen Acton of the Gazette and Southern Maryland Newspapers; Geordie Wilson of the Frederick News Post, and I will be joined by Tim Thomas of the Baltimore Sun on this panel. We testified last week in the Senate against the cross-filed bill, and had a good reception from the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs committee.
Also last week, Tim Thomas and First Amendment lawyer Laura Handman carried our message to the House Judiciary Committee last week against Del. Sandy Rosenberg’s HB 1271 which would grant a right of publicity to celebrities living or dead, going back 70 years. Handman (who is also a trustee of the MDDC Press Foundation) explained to the committee why the bill was unnecessary and unwise, and that living celebrities and some who are dead are protected by current Maryland and federal laws. Thomas told members the bill could hurt the business of newspapers in reprints, resale of photos and special commemorative sections.
We also have some good news to report: The electronic records bill HB 70 has been passed the House with a strengthening amendment, ending the sunset provision completely. The bill, which generally requires the government to produce records in the format requested, was first passed two years ago but was scheduled to expire this fall. The time limit was to see how the process worked. The sponsor, Del. Alfred Carr, asked for a three-year extension, but the House decided to drop the expiration date altogether. The bill now goes to the Senate.
We will be submitting written testimony on the governor’s Budget Reconciliation bill, opposing the plan to drop the newspaper distribution of the comptroller’s abandoned property list. We continue to work with sympathetic legislators to have the provision removed in committee.
We are also working against SB 634 which would remove newspaper notice requirements for the sale of the contents of abandoned self-storage units.
We will submit written testimony against HB 1006 which would allow the shielding of certain misdemeanor criminal records. We routinely oppose such bills as unwarranted rewriting of the public record.
As in the Senate, we will do written opposition to the provision in the governor’s gun law HB 294 that would make registrations of guns confidential records. That hearing is scheduled for Friday.
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