For a couple of years Elkton politicians have talked about improving transparency in government, but their actions don’t supporting the opening up proceedings to the pubic. They’ve demonstrated it again this week when at the start of a workshop Mayor Joseph Fisona ordered staff to stop the video recorder. (His ordered also included all future workshop proceedings.) That news caught Someone Noticed by surprise so we asked to speak to the administrator about the reversal of a long time practice but were told that the decision came directly from the mayor. Mr. George couldn’t explain it since he wasn’t consulted on the quick decision.
While we’re contemplating this latest Fisona administration action, we’ve been mulling over how Elkton handles it closed door meetings. For the past two meetings, they’ve ushered the public out to discuss “personnel.” (*When they justify the closing in a required summary document, they commonly just cite a section of the law, without any additional supporting information.) Within that framework, there is 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.
To shut the public out of specific deliberations the commissioners have to vote on the request. All recent votes have been unanimous, meaning that each elected official agreed that the decision to go behind closed doors is in compliance with the narrow restrictions provide by the Maryland Board. Once they’re behind closed doors, the only deliberations that should go on involve that narrow subject and nothing else.
Since we’re in the middle of a state election sessions with candidates out there looking for votes, we’ll be interested in hearing their positions on strengthening and supporting state level sunshine laws. It’ll help us decide how to vote for we need laws that keep citizens informed. It really isn’t that much to ask of local government.