The state of Maryland ruled that the Kent County Commissioners violated Open Meetings Act rules. Copies of the findings were presented to the commissioners at their regular weekly meeting, drawing pledges from the officials that they would move to make the recommended changes which they viewed more as a nuisance and a technicality than a real problem. The State Open Meetings Compliance Board ruled in a case brought by the Kent County News that took issue with closed meetings held in April and May 2008. The meetings concerned contract negotiations for county business and the setting of fees for two county attorneys.
We find that the commissioners practice of signing unidentified documents during the course of a public meeting is inconsistent with the act, said the board. We find that, in two cases, the commissioners’ actions, in meetings closed to consult with counsel, appear to have exceeded that permissible under the act. We also find that the manner in which actions taken during closed session are reported in publicly available minutes, and the failure to submit to the Compliance Board a statement concerned a closed (meeting) statement resulted in violations.
The complaint protests one closed meeting that was held to discuss a contract renewal for Bay Broadband, saying that the session was illegal, absent more complete and compelling reasons that make the need for confidentiality abundantly clear to those who attended the open meeting of the commissioners. And, said the complaint, the commissioners also erred in closing the meeting at the behest of the county attorney, instead of the commissioners themselves, as the act seems to require.
The compliance board dismissed the concerns about who suggested the closed session but found that the commissioners crossed the line when in the disputed meeting they gave final instructions to counsel as to how the Broadband contract should be written. The board also ruled that a violation occurred when the commissioners closed a meeting to consider a developer’s request for an allocation refund, an issue that raised the question of action on a county contract and of considering requested changes to a longstanding county policy of no refunds on a public-works project. The developer sought refunds on seven water and sewer allocations that were not used. The compliance agency ruled that the commissioners were within their rights to consult privately with the county attorney to discuss the matter, but they were wrong to reject the refund request during the course of the closed session.
The board also cited the publicly available minutes recording the session as at fault. Reading minutes alone, said the board, it would not necessarily be clear that the commissioners’ decision was reached during the course of the closed session. But the denial clearly came during the private meeting, said the board. The complaint against the commissioners also alleged they improperly provided information in the minutes that reflected the rates paid county-hired lawyers. That protest was rejected by the board, which said it found nothing to suggest compensation levels for individual attorneys appointed by the county commissioners could not properly be considered in closed session
The board noted that the complaint included a long list of additional contractual matters that it was asked to investigate. We decline the invitation, said the agency, without elaboration. The findings were included in a complicated, 11-page ruling that was received by the county administrator, Suzanne Hayman. The staff has gone through a lot of heartache (over the rules) but we are doing our best to comply, she said, singling out Janice Fletcher, who prepares the minutes, for special praise. Hayman said the report could be viewed as mostly good, since some of its points were dismissed, but she agreed that there were some issues we can work through.
The compliance board is a state agency with a broad mandate to review compliance across Maryland with open meetings rules. But it has no real enforcement teeth, no way to mandate change and leaves its findings to the discretion of those who figure in them, and those who file protests. Any real enforcement lies in the realm of lawsuits.