Officials scolded on public access

State board notes procedural lapses in closed meetings

March 06, 2002|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

Less than a year after Maryland's Open Meeting Compliance Board found the Carroll County commissioners violated state law by conducting county business behind closed doors, the state board has again said county leaders are not living up to the full letter of the law.

In an opinion issued last week, the three-member compliance board took the commissioners to task for "several procedural lapses." Specifically, the opinion said the commissioners occasionally failed to vote to close a meeting and that they later did not provide sufficient information in the minutes, made available to the public, of those closed sessions.

"They just don't get it, because they don't want to get it," said Neil Ridgely, a Finksburg resident who is running for county commissioner this year. "There really is no reason why they can't go beyond the requirements of the law."

Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge said the board's failure to vote to close the meetings was an oversight. She acknowledged, however, that information in closed-session minutes was a concern and said officials are working to address that.

"I am concerned there is not enough in" the minutes, Gouge said. "We are going to have to make things clearer so that even five years from now, people know what we are talking about."

Commissioner Donald I. Dell refused to comment on the opinion yesterday. Commissioner Robin Bartlett Frazier could not be reached for comment.

Ridgely, who filed a similar complaint last year charging more than 50 violations, reviewed minutes from several meetings and complained to the compliance board about six sessions from September through January.

"I became convinced that the commissioners were not following the regulations," Ridgely said. "I found the minutes from closed sessions to be really sanitized. They should be more than summaries."

The commissioners make their weekly agenda public the Friday before each workweek. Ridgely's complaint dealt with the amount of information provided, the process for closing meetings and information shared with the public. He suggested that the agendas include a brief synopsis of what would be discussed, rather than a list.

The board said the commissioners are complying with the meetings law by publishing their agenda and that no further information is required. But "any additional information, voluntarily provided, that would help members of the public better understand the nature of a meeting is ... to be encouraged," the opinion stated.

The board also noted, "The county commissioners do not violate the act when they simply indicate in a notice that a meeting is expected to be closed, without providing the reasons for closing."

The compliance board is adamant that "the summary of a closed meeting must go beyond a mere parroting," the opinion said. The minutes must reflect the purpose of the session and topics of discussion, so that the public can understand what occurred, the board said.

"Language which gives the public no information whatever about the topic of discussion is insufficient," the board said.

The board also found that the commissioners violated the open-meetings law when, on several occasions, it went into closed session without voting to do so.

"Apparently, we just forgot to vote on something," Gouge said. "That is very easily handled."

To make minutes of a closed session clearer, the board instructed that each department head who meets with the commissioners keep a detailed record, including who attended the meeting, reasons for closing the session, what was discussed and what, if any, action was taken.

"Everybody is really keyed in now and we are trying to be a lot more inclusive," Gouge said. "We are getting better all the time."

The compliance board's ruling against a governing body is not uncommon. Since its inception in 1993, the board has ruled that a public body has violated the act at least half the time it was asked to issue an opinion, records show.

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