Shutting Out the Public When Hiring Lobbyist Wasn’t a Good Open Government Practice; Whig Reports that Commissioner Says He Will Pay for Consultant

Editorial

For days the blogosphere has been churning with news about the county commissioners going behind closed doors to hire a lobbyist to oppose two bills in the General Assembly. Someone Noticed first heard about this after one of our regular local news sources, the Cecil County Young Republican Club, broke the story on its blog. Today the Cecil Whig also provided some coverage of the closed-door aspect of this public policy decision when it quoted Delegate Michael D. Smigiel’s criticism of the closed meeting. Saying that exceptions to the Open Meetings Act are limited, the delegate added that he didn’t “believe that hiring a lobbyist to work to raise the taxes of the citizens constitutes one of those exceptions.”

Some of the commissioners responded to that statement. “If (Smigiel) is only worried about us spending taxpayer money on the lobbyist then I will suggest next week that we (commissioners) split the cost among ourselves or I’ll pay for the whole bill myself. . . I feel it is that important,” Commissioner President Brian Lockhart is quoted as saying. Commissioner Hodge added: “We had no intention of hiding what we did. . . That’s why we asked (county administrator) Al (Wein) to send a press release about it Tuesday afternoon. We were very transparent.”

Someone Noticed questions whether Cecil County met the requirements of the Maryland Open Meeting Act when it went behind closed doors to hire a lobbyist. While there are specific reasons public entities may shut citizens out from deliberations, our reading of the Maryland Attorney General’s Guidance doesn’t seem to justify it under the outlined conditions. The board shut the public out for three reasons on Feb. 16, according to a county statement. It was going to discuss personnel matters, consult with counsel for legal advice, and discuss a matter directly related to negotiating a contract.

To help us understand a story that only the Young Republican Club was covering, we asked to see the minutes from this meeting. The records were sealed in accordance with the motion for an executive session, we were informed. That doesn’t seem to be transparent to us, especially in light of the fact that we don’t see the justification for a closed-door meeting.

Why not let the people see the democratic process in action as a non-competitive contract is awarded and the taxpayer’s dollars are doled out to a Prince Georges County based consultant? The county wasn’t in a competitive bid process so we don’t see how it needed a closed door session to determine a negotiating strategy for getting the best price from a lobbyist. A lobbyist isn’t on the county payroll, so we don’t see the employer-employee relationship. Finally if the Board needed to shut the public out to discuss a legal matter about the contract with counsel, why would representatives of the lobbying firm also be present in the confidential situation, where you’re examining the contract, we wonder.

Since Maryland’s Open Meetings Act and the Freedom of Information Act are important tools for keeping citizens informed and allowing media (legacy or new) to cover stories, this matter of holding governmental entities accountable to the highest standards of those laws are important to us. We learned that while covering the Mayor and Commissioners of the Town of Elkton. In fact, we think those laws need to be strengthened, but until that happens we should strictly apply the standard that we have.

By-the-way, one piece of legislation allows voters to decide whether deputies are granted binding arbitration rights. The other prohibits the county from setting a tax rate higher than the constant yield rate.  Our concern at this point focuses on the closed door decision, not the particulars of hiring a lobbyist to represent the county in Annapolis.

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