Friday, May 25, 2012

Washington County: What a Complaint Looks Like

Here's the text of the written complaint that followed a quick investigation of the commissioners' 2011 and 2012 meeting minutes.


The complaint doesn't have to be a masterpiece of legal writing. It only has to lay out the facts as the citizen understands them and point to items which appear to be in violation of the law.




April 30, 2012
Open Meetings Compliance Board
Attorney General's Office
200 St. Paul Place
Balto, MD 21202

Washington County Board: Minutes and Closing Statements Inadequate.

Dear Members of the Board, 

A recent news article noted that Washington County apparently voted, in a 2011 closed session, to pay $100,000 to an unknown party as an incentive to locate a business there. The claim, made more than a year later, is that there was or is a confidentiality agreement. See (A) attached.

We researched the minutes from February through April 2011 and asked for the closing statements from February and March.

None of the required documents shed light on the closed-door discussion(s). In fact, they fall far short of the minimum legally required for closed meetings.

Closing Statements Fail
As the attached closing statements show, the commissioners consistently violated the Act during the period under review (February-March 2011) by:

•Failing to provide a statutory citation
•Parroting the exception(s)
•Failing to give a meaningful Reason for holding any closed session
•Failing to identify the Topic(s) of the closed sessions

The closing statements deliver no information to the public aside from the members of the commission attending (by noting who voted how on the motion to close). They are the quintessential uninformative boilerplate.

Minutes Fail
The minutes we have examined fail to contain the summary information required by statute. In fact, there are no summaries of any of the closed sessions. There is only a rote recapitulation of the statutory wording.

It should be unnecessary to include a laundry list of elements missing from the minutes. The complete absence of a summary is illegal. In essence the minutes simply parrot the already-inadequate closing statement. The lack of any record of the actions taken in closed session is probably the most egregious omission, since the news articles which refer to the closed session obviously refer to an action on at least one of the dates.

In (B), attached, we see that a joint meeting with the city government does not result in a better summary; the closing state-ment supplied, furthermore, is incomplete.

The 3/11/11 minutes merely say:

Commissioner Barr, seconded by McKinley, moved to convene in closed session at 2:30
p.m. to discuss the appointment, employment, assignment, and/or performance evaluation
of appointees, or officials over whom it has jurisdiction; to discuss personnel matters that
affect one or more specific individuals, and to consider a matter that concerns the proposal
for a business or industrial organization to locate, expand, ore remain in the State, in
accordance with Section 10-508 of the State Government Article of the Annotated Code of
Maryland. The motion passed unanimously.

In closed session, the Commissioners discussed the appointment, employment, assignment,
and/or performance evaluation of appointees, or officials over whom it has jurisdiction;
discussed personnel matters that affect one or more specific individuals, and considered a
matter that concerns the proposal for a business or industrial organization to locate,
expand, or remain in the State. Present during closed session were Commissioners Terry L.
Baker, John F. Barr, Ruth Anne Callaham, Jeffrey A. Cline, and William B. McKinley.
Also present were Gregory Murray, County Administrator; and at various times Vicki
Lumm, County Clerk; John Martirano, County Attorney; Norman Bassett, Coordinator-
Office on Disability Issues; Joe Kuhna, Real Property Administrator; Dan DiVito,
Director-Planning Department; Tim Troxell, Director-Economic Development
Commission (EDC), Rob Ferree, Deputy Director-EDC; and Susan Buchanan, Fiscal
Specialist-EDC.

"And at various times" is insufficient. The participants should be identified by topic in cases where multiple topics are discussed in a single closed-door session.

The description gives the public no confidence that the putative Personnel exceptions were properly invoked. There is nothing to show that policy matters and/or departmental organization were not discussed.

And apparently, in this particular closed session, the commissioners agreed to pay the mystery party $100,000 of taxpayer money. There is nothing. The public cannot know because of the poorly handled public record.

Without access to the closed session minutes - if they indeed exist - the public has no idea whether the topics discussed were within the exceptions claimed. Furthermore, the lack of information on the closing statement indicates the public's right to object, at the time of the closing, was repeatedly violated.

Lunch
Minutes indicate a regular recess for lunch, without any additional information on who attended or where it was held. We believe, given the other facts about the commissioners' handling of closed meetings, that there is a very good possibility that a quorum regularly discussed public business during the "recess."

The commissioners' clear failure to understand the procedural and substantive requirements of the Act is a monumental dis-service to citizens. The county's legal advisor(s), whoever they may have been at different closed sessions, have also failed the public by allowing such a situation to persist.


Unfortunately, neither lapse is rare in Maryland. We would like to know when the commissioners and staff were last trained in the Open Meetings Act, and who did the training.



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