ACT Files Challenge To County Closed Meeting

BERLIN – The Assateague Coastal Trust (ACT) will challenge a controversial closed meeting held by Worcester County elected officials last month by lodging an official complaint with the Maryland Open Meetings Act Compliance Board next week.

“We’re definitely filing,” said ACT Executive Director and Coastkeeper Kathy Phillips. “What we’re going to be challenging is not the decision regarding individual employees but any decision that took place regarding the consolidation of departments.”

Questions have been raised over the County Commissioners’ closed session vote on May 26 to merge the Worcester County Planning Department and the Environmental Programs Department into the Development Review and Permitting Department.

The decision made during the closed session to terminate 11 employees and consolidate those three departments came after the Worcester County budget had just been balanced.

Critics say that the consolidation was policy, not a personnel matter, and should have been discussed in public. County attorney Sonny Bloxom blasted those critics last week, saying they don’t understand the decision was made in closed session because reorganization falls under the commissioners’ administrative responsibilities. ACT disagrees.

“Government needs to be transparent. The process of consolidating government departments, that process needs to be out in the open. It didn’t happen that way,” Phillips said. “The point of all this is that the process the county took, we are challenging the validity of that.”

ACT is working with attorney Ben Wexler on the complaint.

“Assateague Coastal Trust frankly believes it was not in the interests of financial responsibility to the county, that there was more at stake here,” Phillips said. “Whether that comes out into the open or not remains to be seen. This is the first step.”

According to Phillips, Wexler has found two relevant findings by the compliance board supporting ACT’s complaint that the consolidation of the three departments should have been discussed in open, not closed, session.

One Compliance Board opinion, on a 1997 closed discussion between the Wicomico County Council and the Salisbury City Council, reads in part: “To the extent that the discussion of merging the purchasing offices was linked to decisions about identifiable individuals, it was within the confines of the personnel exception…It is difficult for the Compliance Board to imagine, however, that the entire discussion was so confined.”

The 1997 finding holds that, if the government bodies discussed the benefits of merging the purchasing offices, such as economies of scale, the matter should have been handled in open session because the “specific personnel” exception would not apply.

“Just bringing the discussion out into the open would be a good thing. It would help the citizens understand better,” said Phillips. “Quite frankly the people who were affected by the consolidation deserve that at the very least.”

Phillips said she does not expect to reverse the downsizing or consolidation by filing the complaint.

“We just want the county to be aware someone’s looking over their shoulder,” Phillips said.