UNION BRIDGE — A Town Council session to authorize $7,857 for the purchase and installation of Christmas lights was not in compliance with Maryland law,said the state's chief authority on open meetings.
The Oct. 10 meeting was not announced to the public or the media; the law requires notification of news media who "regularly report" on town business.
"Approval of contracts is an activity which falls within the openmeetings law," said Jack Schwartz, chief counselor for opinions withthe state Office of the Attorney General. "The town appears not to have complied with the notice requirement."
Town Clerk Kathleen D. Kreimer read the minutes from the special session at Monday's regularly scheduled council meeting.
Kreimer said she neglected to notifythe media or post notices in her haste to accommodate the schedule of five council members and the mayor.
"This came up really on the spur of the moment," Kreimer said. "The money was already allocated, but we had to have the council's approval on the specific contract."
Schwartz said that the law recognizes that public bodies often need to meet on short notice but that every effort must be made to inform the public.
Councilwoman Bonnie C. Hyde, chairwoman of the lighting committee, has spent much of 1991 looking for new decorations to hang from Main Street poles. The town appropriated $20,000 for the project in the 1992 budget.
Hyde said that on Oct. 8, she had to place an order within three days or the town would lose an 8 percent discount and a delivery guaranteed by Thanksgiving, the day the town traditionally turns on the holiday lights.
"I had spent hours and hours on this and reported at every council meeting for five months," Hyde said. "The money was plugged into the budget, but the council's approval was necessary on the final decision."
Hyde asked Kreimer toorganize the special meeting. Kreimer hurriedly called the mayor andcouncil together for the special session at Town Hall and notified John T. Maguire II, the town attorney. Maguire was unable to attend.
"The money was appropriated, and the project had been discussed in previous council meetings," Maguire said. "I had no legal requirementto be there."
On Maguire's advice, Kreimer kept minutes of the meeting.
In retrospect, he said, the council could have authorized Hyde at a previous session to use her discretion in the purchase, making a further meeting unnecessary.
Mayor Perry L. Jones said he looked on the session as a simple committee report, wherein Hyde would review a purchase order.
"The order had to be in the next day," said the mayor. "Basically, Bonnie just went over the figures with us."
Maguire termed Kreimer's failure to publicize the meeting "an unintentional oversight." Official notification got lost in "the scrambleto get this done."
"We are all to blame here," he said. "The contract had to be in the next day, and, technically, the council had to approve it."
Jones agreed, adding that "under the circumstances, the town is at fault."
Maguire called the town government about "asopen as any government can get."
All meetings take place in the one-room town office. When a crowd is expected, meetings are moved to the Community Center.
Scheduling unexpected meetings is difficult,he said, especially when most council members have full-time jobs elsewhere.
"These council members literally come from their jobs to the town office," he said.