Reporters Can Serve an Important Function as the Public’s Eyes & Ears

The Maryland Open Meeting Law helps journalists report on the more important happenings taking place at meetings of governmental bodies across the state. For reporters struggling to thoroughly cover their political beats and get the full story, this important tool helps a lot. It is a tool, as we’ve mentioned before, that our neighboring newspaper makes sure it uses to hold the boards and commissions to the requirements of the law. That is a very good thing for the public’s right to know, as well as for newspaper circulation and revenue.

Curious to know how frequently local newspapers use this method, we surfed over to the violations page of the Maryland Open Meetings Compliance Board to get an idea of how many complaints the board had investigated from Cecil and Kent counties.  Our track record for compliance based on this metric in Cecil County is apparently excellent. Over a three year period, there was only one complaint from a citizen and that one involved the town of Chesapeake City. There were no other complaints. In Kent County, the local weekly filed over seven complaints.  In addition to the challenges filed by the newspaper, there were a number of additional ones reported by citizens.  Just to calibrate our findings we examined the situation in Harford County and found that the Aegis, the Bel Air paper, was also busy filing complaints.

That leaves us with an unanswered question as the midnight hour rolls over Cecil County. Are our boards simply better at adhering to the open meeting requirements than those in Kent and Harford? Or does our local newspaper just say okay that’s the way business is done here when a board wants to take the public’s business behind closed doors? It is really hard for a journalist to serve as the eyes and ears of the public and write a full story when the important transactions are happening in closed door sessions.  Papers that pushes hard to cover these more complicated things are creating value for a range of stakeholders by holding officials accountable and they are contributing to the betterment of local government by holding elected officials to the letter of the law.

We ran into challenges with the open meetings and records act when we were serving an advocacy role for some park land the town of ELkton wanted to turn over to a developer.  At one point, public documents the mayor had in his possession were needed to understand all the actions that were going on behind closed doors, so we filed a Freedom of Information Act request.  After pushing a little on that subject, we were informed that the Mayor had lost his papers.  We were preparing to file a complaint with the Attorny General’s Office when the town decided it wasn’t going to ahead with the commercial land development project.  Back then we were always curious why the Whig wasn’t at first coveirng what was happening with this and then following our lead and filing Freedom of Information Act requests for we were able to drill down and obtain helpful documents that were newsworth on our blog.

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5 responses to “Reporters Can Serve an Important Function as the Public’s Eyes & Ears

  1. I have filed several complaints with the Open Meeting Compliance Boards, last time in 91. Both times the Town of Elkton were found to be in violation. The last opinion had a statement that the Board had no enforcement powers. They do. They can fine the offending parties. If the statue is vague, or not enforced, there is no reason to abide.

    The way the law should read is that all “closed meetings” will be recorded, with a sworn statement that the tape contain all things discussed during the meeting. The tapes should be sent to the Board, who has staff review them for compliance. This would mean that the Board and additional staff would have to be non-partisan. The fines should increase with the number of violations, with removal from office after 5.

    It is a shame that we have to write into law what should be common sense in a democratic society. Our politicians, with some exceptions (Smigiel and Pipkin included) really do not like it when citizens know their Constitution and fight to see that it is adhered to.

  2. Chief:

    Thanks for letting us know about the earlier attempt back in 1991.

  3. Mr, Moderator,
    I hope you haven’t lost that telephone number to the Attorney General’s Office. I might need to borrow it.
    P.S. Chief, It’s woderful to hear from you.

  4. Mr. Carpenter:

    I may have misplaced the number. But it’s a number they use so frequently in the newsrooms at the Kent County News and the Aegis that I’ll bet they keep it at hand, so they should be able to help you out. I don’t think any of the media in Cecil County has ever used the tool to help in collecting news, so give one of those papers a call. They’ll help you out if you need the numbers.

  5. Crazy History Teacher

    What’s with all this praise for Kent County! I taught there way back many years ago and I thought it was the most backward place ever. Even more so than my hometown in Dorchester County…that is until I came to Cecil County, then I realized Kent County ain’t that bad!

    You know…a colleague of mine that teaches at Glasgow High School in Delaware told me that their school’s Drama Club was doing the play Footloose. That got me to thinking….I think the town of Bomont in Footloose was secretly inspired by Elkton!

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