Berlin Cited For Open Meetings Act Violations

Berlin Cited For Open Meetings Act Violations
File photo by Chris Parypa

BERLIN – The Maryland Open Meetings Compliance Board found that the Town of Berlin violated the Open Meetings Act at two November closed session meetings.

On Jan. 20, the Open Meetings Compliance Board (OMCB) issued an opinion regarding various violations of the Open Meetings Act related to closed session meetings on Nov. 16 and 23. The board’s review of town council practices stemmed from a complaint filed by resident Jason Walter. Though he cited the specific November meeting dates, Walter said the town’s closed meeting practices were an ongoing problem.

“While we do not address whether any other such violations have in fact occurred, we encourage the council in the conduct of future meetings to comply with the procedures set forth in the Act…,” the OMCB opinion reads. “These procedures are designed to ensure public bodies will conduct public business in secrecy only when there is a genuine need for secrecy, and, even when there is such a need, to ensure that the public is made aware of that need, and is meaningfully informed after the fact about the actions the public body has taken.”

The six-page OMCB opinion cited violations of the pre-meeting notice and agenda requirements, the requirements for properly closing a session, the requirement that the closed-session discussion be limited to matters within the exception claimed and the requirement of a closed-session summary in the minutes of the next open session meeting.

The opinion points out that when scheduling a closed session meeting, the council should issue an agenda advising that an open meeting will be held where a vote to go into closed session will be taken. Walter’s complaint alleged that the Nov. 16 meeting—a special executive session to discuss public security—was closed from beginning to end. The OMCB opinion said the town did not dispute that the vote to close the meeting was taken in closed session, out of public view.

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“This nonpublic closure vote violated the Act…,” the opinion reads.

The opinion goes on to state that a closing statement was not made available to the public in an open session prior to the meeting closure.

“…because the vote to close was taken in closed session, members of the public were deprived of the opportunity to object to the closure, which violates the Act,” the opinion reads.

Another issue addressed in the opinion is the fact that the council, in its Nov. 16 closed session, discussed topics other than those stipulated in its closing statement.

“Here the confidential meeting minutes the council submitted to the board indicate that the council discussed a number of topics at the November 16 meeting extending beyond matters that would threaten public safety if discussed publicly,” the opinion reads.  “As the text of the Act indicates, closure is not allowed simply because the discussion relates to safety or security matters; rather, the body must ‘determine’ that the issues are sensitive enough that an open discussion would itself imperil the public.”

In an interview Wednesday, Walter said he submitted the complaint because, despite the assertions of some prior council members, he didn’t believe the town operated as transparently as it should.

“It was an ongoing issue,” he said. “The incoming administration promised to change things and staff seemed to continue the status quo.”

When asked for a comment on Wednesday, Mayor Zack Tyndall said he’d address the opinion next week.

“I received the report today and will be issuing a public statement during the council meeting on Monday night,” he said.

About The Author: Charlene Sharpe

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Charlene Sharpe has been with The Dispatch since 2014. A graduate of Stephen Decatur High School and the University of Richmond, she spent seven years with the Delmarva Media Group before joining the team at The Dispatch.