Board calls meeting violation inadvertent

Media not notified of school panel retreat

Anne Arundel

March 02, 2001|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

Anne Arundel County school board members held an unannounced private meeting Saturday where they discussed priorities for future votes, then acknowledged yesterday - five days later - that they "inadvertently" violated Maryland's Open Meetings Act by not informing the media of the session.

Though the daylong retreat was planned weeks ago, board President Paul G. Rudolph blamed the failure to publicize the meeting on last week's snowstorm, which closed schools early Feb. 22 and canceled classes Feb. 23.

"The Board acknowledges with regret this inadvertent violation of the Open Meetings Act and reaffirms its intention to comply with the law in all respects in [the] future," Rudolph said in a statement released yesterday. "The Board will continue its Retreat on a future date and will ensure that proper notices be sent."

All eight school board members attended, along with schools Superintendent Carol S. Parham, board attorney P. Tyson Bennett and a facilitator provided by the Maryland Association of Boards of Education.

The retreat began with an 8:30 a.m. breakfast and lasted until nearly 4 p.m. at Arlington Echo in Millersville, the school system's outdoor education center. It was the first in about seven years, said Joseph H. Foster, one of the board's longest-serving members.

The board discussed the system's mission statement, priorities and ways to better work together, board members who attended said yesterday.

"I thought the notice was going to go out," Foster said. "I'm very disappointed that it didn't. I think it's important that this sort of thing be communicated to the public - what are the real priorities for the board. I think this is really important stuff."

The board had decided Feb. 21 that the retreat would be open to the media. The board's secretary, Maura Stevenson, was supposed to tell Jane W. Beckett, the system's public information officer, on Feb. 22 to send out word of the retreat, but the snowy weather intervened. The information never got out, and no one asked until Monday morning why media representatives weren't there. "I think we're just looking at human error," Beckett said yesterday. "It's the first time in my memory that anything like that has happened."

State law forbids public entities such as the board from engaging in the "consideration or transaction of public business" in private if a quorum exists. If someone complained, the Maryland Open Meetings Law Compliance Board could investigate. The compliance board, an independent agency appointed by the governor, is limited to issuing opinions, with no authority to fine or sanction.

Foster said he noticed that no members of the media were in attendance but said he didn't know whether they would cover something like that on a Saturday.

Anthony J. Spencer, the newest board member, said sometimes it's easier to come together as a board "when the press is not there."

"When you have a long day, you can throw a lot of ideas out," Spencer said yesterday. "It was an exciting day. I really enjoyed it."

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