County Wants More Private Meeting Rights

SNOW HILL – If legislation to be considered Tuesday passes, county elected officials will legally be able to eliminate or consolidate county departments behind closed doors, as they did in late May when they decided in closed session to fold three departments into one and lay off 11 employees.

The proposed law has sparked community concern.

“Good government equals open government, transparency,” said Joe Fehrer, board member and past president of Assateague Coastal Trust (ACT). “The fact the commissioners want to be able to decide legislative matters without public representation in my mind is not open government.”

The commissioners will hold a public hearing on the legislation Tuesday before making a decision on the proposed law.

The legislation, introduced in late February, is a reaction to the decision by the Maryland Open Meetings Compliance Board that the Worcester County Commissioners violated the state Open Meetings Act when they consolidated three departments into one in a closed-door meeting.

The decision to consolidate the Comprehensive Planning and Environmental Programs departments into the Development Review and Permitting Department was neither an administrative function nor a personnel matter, the Open Meetings Compliance Board concluded this fall. The complaint was brought by ACT.

The Open Meetings Compliance Board cannot punish or fine governments in violation of the Act, and can only render advisory opinions.

The legislation under consideration Tuesday reads: “The County Commissioners, in exercise of their executive powers, shall take such administrative actions that they deem necessary, to create, change, discontinue or abolish County offices and departments and to remove or assign additional functions to such offices and departments.”

Fehrer said the move is especially disturbing at a time when the state of Maryland is considering legislation to enable counties to function even more openly.

“Assateague Coastal Trust would encourage the citizens of Worcester County to attend and voice their concerns … we need to get people there and let the county leaders know that we the people want an open forum with our local government,” Fehrer said. “We don’t want things decided behind closed doors and removed from public input.”