Open meeting process clarified

Panel plans 30-day period to check vague allegations

`A step in the right direction'

Move tied to complaints over school board actions

Howard County

July 29, 2004|By Hanah Cho | Hanah Cho,SUN STAFF

The state Open Meetings Compliance Board will clarify how it handles residents' complaints, including offering a 30-day window to clarify allegations of violations that are vague or incomplete, under an agreement reached with an Ellicott City parent.

The consent order, effective this week, comes nearly a year after Melody Higgins filed a lawsuit against the Howard County Board of Education and the state compliance board after it refused to consider claims she made alleging violations by the school panel.

Although the agreement settles claims against the compliance board, the lawsuit against the school board remains open.

"It's absolutely fabulous that it has happened," Higgins said. "It could only make the Open Meetings Compliance Board better for the people."

Last July, Higgins asked the compliance board to investigate the legitimacy of a phone-poll decision by school board members and the legality of action taken regarding then-Superintendent John R. O'Rourke's salary during a closed meeting.

Higgins' request to the compliance board was the fifth such request since 2000 concerning the Howard County school board, which has repeatedly been accused of conducting business in secret.

But the compliance board returned Higgins' complaint because it did "not allege any specific violation" of the Open Meetings Act, according to a letter written by Maryland Assistant Attorney General Jack Schwartz.

Schwartz, who serves as the counsel to the compliance board, did not represent the board in the Higgins case.

`Pro-active approach'

In August, Higgins filed a lawsuit in Howard County Circuit Court alleging that some of the actions of the board members were unlawful and that the compliance board was wrong in refusing to answer her complaint.

By formalizing procedures and providing clearer information, the compliance board is "taking a more pro-active approach to educating the citizens of Maryland," said Allen Dyer, Higgins' attorney, who is awaiting a decision by the Court of Special Appeals in a separate open-meetings lawsuit filed against the school board nearly four years ago.

"The compliance board is improving their operations," Dyer said. "This is a step in the right direction."

Under the settlement, the compliance board will post information on filing a complaint on the attorney general's office's Web site by Oct. 1. That information will be in addition to procedures outlined in the Open Meetings Act available online.

Helping citizens

The agreement also clarifies the compliance board's procedure in addressing vague and incomplete complaints by allowing a 30-day window to gather additional information.

"There are occasions when a letter comes in, and it's not all together clear on what the complainant had in mind," Schwartz said. "The compliance board, in doubtful cases, [will] make an effort to try to seek clarification from the person who sent in the complaint."

That provision will help citizens who do not know details of the Open Meetings Act, Higgins said.

"If it's not exactly correct, they have to help you fix it," she said. "For people like me, who aren't lawyers, that's terrific."

Public body inquiry

Under the settlement, the board can ask the public body accused of violating the Open Meetings Act to also address issues identified by the board - but not by the complainant - based on the information provided in the complaint.

Sometimes, the complaint "provides enough information for the compliance board to spot an issue on its own that the complainant didn't spot," Schwartz said.

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