OCEAN CITY — The state’s Open Meeting Compliance Board (OMCB) last week issued an opinion the town violated the Open Meetings Act when it didn’t properly report significant changes to the towing ordinance passed in September.
In September, the Mayor and Council passed a trio of ordinances amending the town’s towing policy including a new fee structure and other elements in advance of the upcoming pop-up car rally and the fall Cruisin event. Specifically, the ordinances reflected changes to the fee structure for impoundment of certain vehicles during times when the special event zone was in place along with a defined process for removing a towed vehicle from the impound lot.
During the Cruisin event in October, a participant was cited for allegedly having an unsafe vehicle and was impounded at a rate of $985. The participant, Jay Mills, was also charged $100 to tow his vehicle out of the impound lot. Mills later attempted to appeal the fees, but learned the ordinances passed a month earlier removed the appeal process.
Mills then went back to the Sept. 8 meeting agenda and minutes and learned the towing ordinances were passed as emergency legislation. He filed a complaint with the OMCB alleging the town violated the Open Meetings Act because it did not appropriately make known the changes to the towing ordinance.
Last week, the OMCB released its opinion determining the town had violated certain sections of the act. During Tuesday’s work session, Council President Matt James read a statement into the record announcing the OMCB opinion.
“The complaint alleged the council violated the Open Meetings Act on September 8, 2020 by amending the town’s towing ordinance without adequate notice to the public, and that the written minutes of said meeting did not indicate that the council discussed the ordinance before adopting it,” he said. “The board concluded the council violated section 3-302.1 of the Open Meetings Act by omitting a known topic or item of business from its September 8 agenda as the agenda should have alerted the public, by way of a separately listed item, that the council would be considering the ordinances as ‘emergency,’ which would have made them effective immediately.”
James said the OMCB determined there was a violation of the act, but the town was in compliance with other salient portions of the act.
“The board concluded this information should have been on the agenda even though the bill summary sheets in the agenda packet did alert the public that the ordinances could be adopted as emergency legislation,” he said. “The board concluded the council was in compliance with the portions of the act requiring reasonable advance notice of their meeting and making the agenda available in a timely manner. The council has signed the opinion and will submit said signed copy to the board as required by the act.”
An opinion of the board is strictly advisory. The board will state its opinion on whether the Open Meetings Act was violated and explain its reasoning. The board has no authority to issue orders or impose penalties.
According to the complaint, on Oct. 9, Mills was pulled over in the special event zone because his vehicle was deemed unsafe and did not have a hood, according to the complaint. However, he pointed out in the complaint his historic vehicle was 100% compliant and tagged appropriately as a street rod. He also pointed out his 1929 vehicle did not require a hood.
Regardless, Mills’ vehicle was impounded with a $985 fee. He was also reportedly charged $100 to tow the vehicle out of the impound lot. Mills said in the complaint he accepted the citations, paid the fees and towed his vehicle out of the impound lot, trailered it and returned home.
Once back home, Mills sent in the citations and pleaded not guilty to get an appearance before a judge to contest the fees. In the complaint, Mills said he went to the town’s website to figure out how to file an appeal and notified the town via email he intended to appeal. However, he got an email in reply stating there was no appeal process because the emergency ordinance passed in September removed the appeal process for a police-directed tow in a special event zone.
“This removes all due process from an appeal of wrongful impoundment during said special event and makes the officer the judge and jury,” he said. “I would please like some help with this as it just does not seem right or lawful. It seems the town of Ocean City is using this bill to their benefit and not the way it was intended to be used. I also believe they violated the Open Meeting Act with their town ordinance change and not providing the new town ordinance to the public before said event.”
The OMCB opinion released last week marked the second time in the last seven months the town of Ocean City has been deemed in violation of the Open Meeting Act. In June, the OMCB deemed the town was in violation of certain portions of the act during often-closed meetings regarding the renewal of the pier franchise agreement.