State officials would like to meet with the Carroll County commissioners and Finksburg resident Neil Ridgely to discuss more than 50 county meetings that Ridgely alleges were "closed for no specific topic, for illegitimate topics or held with undisclosed individuals."
At Ridgely's request, the state's Open Meetings Compliance Board is investigating whether the three-member Board of County Commissioners is properly meeting in public and private sessions. A review of 105 complaints adjudicated by the open meetings board since 1992 reveals this to be one of the most comprehensive inquiries of its kind to be conducted in Maryland.
"The Open Meetings Compliance Board has indicated that it desires to have an informal conference prior to issuing its opinion," said Jack Schwartz, counsel to the open meetings panel.
"There will be no formal questioning of witnesses, no cross examination," he said. "This meeting would simply give the board an opportunity to meet face to face with the parties and hear how the complainant views what went on and how the commissioners see the situation."
The open meetings board holds informal conferences when it needs further information to address issues raised in a complaint, Schwartz said. Such proceedings are not unusual, he added.
Carroll officials said they hope to meet with the open meetings board soon after the new year and would expect to receive a written opinion within 30 days of the conference.
"This meeting will probably clear things up - for the citizens and for us," said Carroll Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge, president of the board.
"We will have a chance to hear from the authorities what we should and should not be doing. If we're doing something wrong, we need to correct it. If we're doing things right, we need to get this behind us and move on."
Commissioners Donald I. Dell and Robin Bartlett Frazier could not be reached yesterday. Carroll's county attorney, Laurell Taylor, did not return telephone messages left yesterday.
In recent months, the Carroll commissioners have met behind closed doors and discussed budget priorities, banned Sunday morning recreational activities at county parks and agreed to buy farmland near Union Bridge for more than six times its appraised value.
"I believe they're violating the spirit - if not the letter - of the open meetings law," said Ridgely, a former county employee who works for a nonprofit environmental organization. "If this [informal conference] is what's necessary to get some resolution, then I'm willing to participate."
Since Ridgely's complaint, the commissioners have tried to reduce the number of executive sessions and have ordered their secretaries to keep detailed records of public and private meetings, Gouge said.
Under Maryland law, a public body can meet without the public being present for two reasons. One is called executive function, which the Carroll commissioners refer to as executive session, and the other is a closed session.
The open meetings law covers closed sessions only. Public boards may go into closed session to discuss personnel matters, legal issues, land acquisition or business prospects. They must publicly vote on and then note the reason for closing meetings.
Under executive function, a public board can convene privately to delegate duties or conduct routine business - almost anything but make or change laws. The board is not required to give a reason.
Ridgely's complaint covers both kinds of meetings.
Officials in Garrett Park, Poolesville and Hagerstown have successfully defended decisions to close meetings by invoking executive function.
The issue is particularly troublesome in commissioner-run counties such as Carroll and Frederick because leaders of those counties wield legislative and executive power. The commissioners' dual responsibilities often make it difficult to discern whether a meeting must be open to the public, Taylor has said.