For 2nd Time in Weeks, Town Goes Behind Closed Session to Discuss Personnel

Elkton Town Meeting, August 11, 2010 —  Mayor Fisona called for a closed meeting to discuss “personnel” at the end of the workshop.  Unanimously concurring, the board voted to go behind closed doors for the sole purpose of discussing employee issues.  This is the second consecutive time this body has ushered the public out to discuss town workers.   Last session, the assistant administrator’s position was eliminated in order to “reduce administration cost.”  After the layoff, Town Administrator Lewis George stated he did not believe additional workforce reductions were pending.

This entire situation causes us to wonder about Elkton’s compliance with open meeting rules.  Officials seem to go behind closed doors more frequently than their counterparts.  (Of course, they also have lots more legal action going on.)    When they do, the board usually conducts business without providing justification beyond simply restating a section of the regulations.  An Attorney General’s ruling says that reason beyond citing the law must be provided to the public.  The past two sessions, the elected leadership unanimously agreed to shut out people while they discussed personnel matters.  The Maryland Open Meetings Law requires that nearly every deliberation of public interest be done in the public view, while closed sessions are allowed only in limited cases for specific reasons.  Elected officials should insist on the strictest compliance with these rules.  Each individual commissioner is responsible for adherence with the law for they have to sign a form showing that the town was in compliance with the Open Meetings Act as they go into an executive session to conduct public business.  The decision to reverse the long-time recording practice, which had required months of public debate, was reversed without a board discussion, as far as we know.

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2 responses to “For 2nd Time in Weeks, Town Goes Behind Closed Session to Discuss Personnel

  1. Silly Mike. They’ve been closing the doors to the public for questionable reasons for decades! I should know, because I was privy to one in which I presented material to then Mayor Jim Crouse and the Commissioners.

    That situation was a “quasi” personnel matter, but honestly it probably didn’t fall under the intent of the Open Meetings Law. The discussion was around the information I had obtained that indicated contradictory reasons for the Chief of Police (in about 1994/1995 or so) made trips to testify about why he had hired a police officer with a felony record. I was told by town officials they were told repeated trips to testify were a result of faulty tape recorders that required a “re-do” of the inquiry.

    I remember that night as if it were yesterday – when Lew George came over to North Street to ask if I would come back over to Town Hall and meet with the Mayor and Commissioners and “share” the information I had acquired from the state agency that has oversight of municipal police agencies ( the exact name escapes me now ).

    During that meeting, Mayor Crouse slammed his hand on the table and exclaimed: “If he (the chief) doesn’t resign tomorrow, I’m going to fire him!” The Chief did resign – as those who followed the escapades know – and although the daily papers (the Cecil Whig and the Wilmington News Journal) did carry the news before our weekly paper could publish it – we did have the inside knowledge to ask very specific questions. The one that made us stand out I asked of Lewis George.

    This was like other times when Lewis George was put in an awkward position – having to answer to a Board and Mayor who didn’t like me one bit — and wanting to be honest and factual in his response to me.

    The questions went like this:

    “Did the Chief of Police bring a letter of resignation with him to Town Hall?” It sounded kinda obvious – but the other papers were only privy to the very public announcement. I knew more.

    “No. He didn’t,” George said.

    “Was he given a letter of resignation and asked to sign it?” I asked as a follow-up.

    “Yes,” George said.

    Based on the conversation I heard the night before and the assertion the Mayor made, it was a logical assumption.

    Our story was more complete and had more context. Did the other papers get into that detail? Nope! I thought it was a poor decision on their part, but then I was their competition, wasn’t I?

    Back then, Elkton went into Executive Session more often than any other municipality in Cecil County. I had the door shut on my foot in Port Deposit by the Mayor there – but their town counsel explained to her that they couldn’t just shut the door any time they wanted to.

    The trouble is – it’s very difficult to determine what they’ve talked about unless you have an “in” with one of the elected officials and they tell you privately. I thought back then they were afforded the latitude to hold their meetings in private – for the limited reasons of personnel, litigation, and very little else. However, they did have to report what their reason was (with some specificity) either immediately before or after in a public session. They are also encouraged, I believe, not to congregate outside of the public meetings in numbers that might give the appearance of impropriety…

    These things excite me – so I’ll be watching closely with great interest to see what develops. Of course, if you are concerned that there’s procedural issues that aren’t being followed, the MD Attorney General’s Office would be interested in knowing, I’m sure.

  2. Wayne: Yes I remember your work as the editor of a small town weekly, investigating pieces and digging into them some. That was some of the best professional journalism, we’ve had on this beat.

    News media, when it remember it’s role of keeping citizens informed and serving as something of a watchdog, contributed to the quality of govt, for politicians knew that what they were doing might get reported.

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