OC Cleared In Open Meeting Complaint

OCEAN CITY – The Maryland Open Meeting Compliance Board, an arm of the state Attorney General’s Office, has ruled in favor of Ocean City on a complaint filed by a private citizen with a long track record of similar complaints, finding the Mayor and Council did not violate a closed session law when it allegedly discussed bids for the resort’s advertising contract last September.

According to the complaint filed by Ocean City resident Joseph H. Potter, the Mayor and Council met in closed session on Sept. 29, 2009 as usual to discuss the acquisition of property and to consult with staff and others regarding pending or potential litigation, but the elected officials violated open meeting law by discussing during the same session as many as 10 bids for the town’s marketing and advertising contract.

The complaint alleged during a public meeting following the closed session in question, Councilwoman Mary Knight “made reference to the closed session saying that council members were provided with information for reviewing as many as 10 contract proposals received for advertising Ocean City, Maryland.” Potter’s complaint alleged the council violated the Open Meetings Act because it does not permit secret discussions by a public body of open bids submitted by vendors.

In response to the complaint, City Solicitor Guy Ayres described the manner by which Ocean City selects its advertising agency in two basic parts including putting out a request for proposals. The process includes two parts including a written response to a questionnaire followed by an oral presentation and interview. Ayres explained the town’s tourism director assembled packages of the responses received for the Mayor and Council and they were in the room when the elected officials met during the closed session in question for review at their leisure.

Ayres said the written responses were never discussed or even mentioned during the closed session. In its analysis of the evidence, the state’s Open Meeting Compliance Board ruled in late January the Mayor and Council had not violated the Open Meeting Act.

“Based on the council’s response, there was no evidence that the council’s discussion during the closed session on Sept. 29, 2009 extended beyond the topics identified as the council’s justification for the closed session,” the opinion reads. “The documents related to the advertising procurement were simply in the room available for pickup at the time the council met in closed session.”

Town officials were generally pleased the compliance board voted in its favor on the latest Open Meetings Act complaint filed against the elected officials by Potter, who has submitted no less than seven similar complaints in recent years. Ocean City Council President Joe Mitrecic said Potter has filed numerous complaints with the compliance board, but to the best of his knowledge, it has never been proven the city made a mistake with its closed session meetings.

“I think this gentleman continues to waste taxpayer money with these ridiculous claims he has made,” he said. “Once again, it was found we did nothing wrong.”

Potter’s most recent complaint filed with the compliance board over the Mayor and Council’s closed session policies is the latest in a long list dating back several years. In January 2006, Potter complained to the board about the council’s discussion of beach equipment vendor bids in closed session. In January 2007, he filed a similar complaint about alleged closed session discussions involving wrapping town buses with advertising.

In July 2007, Potter complained to the compliance board about the council’s alleged closed session discussions of a lease for the Art League of Ocean City building, and in August 2007, Potter complained about the town’s alleged open meeting act violations in general and about the availability of closed session meeting minutes specifically. While the compliance board did not rule against the town in general on that complaint, it did call into question the timing of the availability of minutes for those sessions.