Compliance Board To Hear Closed Meeting Debate

BERLIN – The controversy over a closed meeting that resulted in the consolidation of three Worcester County government departments continues with a formal complaint made to the state that the County Commissioners violated the Maryland Open Meetings Act.

The Assateague Coastal Trust (ACT) filed the six-page complaint with the Open Meetings Compliance Board late last week. The complaint was prepared with the assistance of lawyer and ACT board member King Burnett and other ACT lawyers.

“They’re entitled to make a complaint. Anyone can complain about anything at any time. If that’s what they feel like they have to do let ‘em go at it,” said Commissioner Bud Church, who supported the consolidation. “I think it’s a completely unfounded complaint. Let the process play out.”

The Maryland Open Meetings Act puts stringent limits on topics allowed to be discussed by governmental bodies behind closed doors. Under the act, closed-door meetings are meant specifically for personnel matters, legal matters and property acquisition.

“We contend that this meeting was in violation of the Maryland Open Meetings Act, and that the scope of the meeting and the decisions made therein fall well outside any privilege or exclusion afforded to discussions regarding personnel matters, or matters of an administrative nature. We would ask that the Compliance Board issue an opinion and finding that the Commissioners’ actions on May 26, 2009 in closed session violated the Open Meetings Act,” the complaint reads.

The complaint cites state government standards requiring that the exceptions to the open meetings rule, particularly the personnel matters exception, should “be strictly construed in favor of open meetings of public bodies.”

According to ACT’s complaint, the Compliance Board found a violation in similar circumstances, when the Frostburg City Council discussed redefining its relationship with the city administrator. The Compliance Board opinion found that these debates “were policy deliberations fundamental to the City’s governance …” and should have been held in open session.

ACT says that the changes made in Worcester County’s department are comparable.

“Similarly, the matters considered by the Worcester County Commissioners in reorganization were policy decisions effecting profound changes on county government,” the ACT complaint says.

Another Compliance Board decision referenced by ACT’s complaint held that only matters relating to specific individuals working for the government, not general personnel issues, can be discussed privately.

If the Compliance Board determines that the complaint falls under its purview, it will send the complaint to the County Commissioners for their response. Within a month of receiving the county’s response, the board should render its opinion.

The board does not have any enforcement authority. The board cannot levy fines or force changes in governmental behavior. Opinions are meant more to educate local jurisdictions on following the Open Meetings Act in the future than to punish any transgression.