Public Bodies Must Provide Sufficient Justification When Shutting Out the Public, According to State Board

Since the County Commissioners stirred things up further, as if that needed to be done, by shutting the public out from a decision to hire a Prince George County lobbying firm to represent them in Annapolis, we’ve been troubled by the closed-door aspect of the process.  The vigilance of the Young Republicans alerted citizens to the matter, putting lots of light on it right away. Once they spread the news, it grabbed our attention since strict adherence to the Maryland Open Meeting Act is important for media (new or legacy) if we are going to provide valuable information about goings-on in local government. The Whig joined bloggers Friday, giving the closed meeting some ink when it quoted Delegate Smigiel’s criticism of the action. It also quoted Commissioner Lockhart as saying he is going to recommend county officials personally pay for the lobbyist. Commissioner Hodge added the board sought transparency, which is why it got a press release out announcing the decision.

While mulling all this over and waiting to see what the minutes of that meeting are going to report, we noticed a relevant determination of violation involving the Town of Centreville. On Jan. 26, the compliance board determined that a breach occurred after Centreville resident Sveinn C. Storm filed a complaint.

The Centreville “council violated the act by failing to provide an adequate description of topics discussed as part of publicly available minutes” following a closed session, according to the blog, Citizens for Greater Centreville. The state board found that statements such as “the council discussed personnel matters and received legal advice” were insufficient because they merely repeat the statutory exception without offering any details. According to the Open Meetings board, “the Act requires a disclosure that provides some detail beyond repeating the statutory justification for closure.

Here’s what the MD board said: “We find that the description in each session identified in the complaint was legally deficient. The descriptions provided the public with no basis on which to evaluate the identified topic of discussion in light of applicable statutory authority cited as a basis for closure. While we are sensitive to the privacy concerns mentioned in the response, the Act requires a disclosure that provides some detail beyond repeating the statutory justification.

There were other variances not in line with good government practices and it was a timely violation ruling. We’re an advocate for a much stronger sunshine law in the state and we support Common Cause of Maryland’s efforts when they lobby on this matter. But since this is the law we have to work with, it is important to serve as vigilant advocates for the strictest application of the extant statute.

Actually we wonder why the commissioners would want to get so off topic on the larger matter.  The board has some valid concerns, it would appear, but all that going behind closed doors to shut the public out is cause more of a stir that distracts from the central issues, while creating more confusion.

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