Opinion On Open Meetings Complaint Expected In Fall

BERLIN – A decision on whether the Worcester County Commissioners violated the state of Maryland’s closed meetings law when deciding to consolidate three county departments into one has been delayed by sheer volume of Open Meetings complaints, according to state staff.

A decision on the complaint filed by Assateague Coastal Trust (ACT) was due last week, but so many complaints have come in that staff reported they could not keep up.

William Varga, an Assistant Attorney General and Counsel for the Open Meetings Compliance Board, took the blame for the delay in decisions, referring to the many recent complaints submitted to the board.

“I’m way behind on all the complaints. I’ll get to it as soon as I can,” Varga said. “We used to have two attorneys doing this and the other one retired…this is one small part of my job and I try to keep up with it.”

Varga said an unusually large number of complaints have arrived at his office in the last six months. The number of complaints at any one time can vary widely.

His office received the County Commissioners’ response to ACT’s allegations in July, over 30 days ago, Varga confirmed. Once a complaint and the response from the public body involved are received, Varga drafts an opinion for the Compliance Board to consider.

“To be honest, I haven’t even looked at it,” Varga said of ACT’s complaint. “It’s not the compliance board’s fault, it’s the staff’s fault.”

Once the draft opinion is ready, the three-member volunteer Compliance Board considers the opinion and can ask for modifications if they disagree. “They do rely heavily on staff,” Varga said.

An opinion could be ready by early autumn, Varga said.

ACT filed the complaint over the May 26 closed meeting wherein the County Commissioners voted to consolidate three planning related departments into one. The complaint contends that closed meetings can only be used to discuss individual personnel, not broadly-based personnel policy. The complaint also references state standards that require governments to favor open meetings.

The complaint was submitted in early July.

“We’re glad to know that our case file is finally moving through the system,” said ACT Executive Director and Coastkeeper Kathy Phillips. “We’ll be patient and wait for the board to render an opinion.”