State Says Citing “Personnel” as Justification for Closing Meeting is Insufficient

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.

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2 responses to “State Says Citing “Personnel” as Justification for Closing Meeting is Insufficient

  1. Mike,

    I applaud the effort. Now, it needs to be taken to the next level – and complaints filed for each and every time over the past 12-18 months in which the town’s minutes are deficient in an adequate description of the matter discussed.

    There are legitimate reasons for closing a meeting to the public. And, they are based on logic. You wouldn’t expect your employer to discuss your personnel matter in the break room where others could overhear it. And, likewise, you wouldn’t want your lawyer to talk to you about potential or pending legal issues – or about a strategic real estate purchase while standing in line at the dry cleaners. So, that makes sense, too.

    But, as you point out, you can’t just close a meeting, cite the language in the law as your reason, and go about your business without the public present. The reason the law exists is to protect against the abuse of public trust. I’m sure they didn’t violate the law EVERY time they met, but I bet there were times other things were discussed — and NOT ONE of the elected officials in the past 16 years have objected to any discussion outside of the scope of the reason for closing the meeting.

    As a member of the Fourth Estate while I was in Elkton, it was not acceptable that I insert myself into the stories that I wrote. That was strictly for the editorial page. I was charged with merely “holding up a mirror to the community” and allowing readers to draw their own opinions. In a case like this, the most I could do was inquire about any complaints filed. When I would be told there haven’t been any, I could tell readers that.

    Effecting change in procedures is absolutely necessary and it’s apparent this set of elected officials will not change on their own. It’s time to have an outside authority tell them they need to change.

    I look forward with great anticipation to further developments!

    Wayne

  2. Wayne: I think you’re right. This matter of them providing justification for the closed door meetings has been brought up at least twice at town meetings, prior to the latest Fisona administration decision. And those have involved things other than personnel and a sample of their summary report of the meeting most common just cites the section from the law. Centreville’s case says you have to go beyond that as does the open meetings act.

    We did a study sometime ago about local media’s use of FOIA and challenges to closed door meetings. All the time, the Kent County News challenges the boards in Kent County and takes some of those challenges to the state board. They also make a report everytime they go into a closed door meeting and sometimes do editorials on the subject. I think we found 12 cases with the state open meetings board from the Kent County News. Also checked other places such as Harford Co and media over there has some instances. Check our Cecil Co. legacy media oulets and ove a decade there were none. It is important citizens and meida hold officials accountable to meet these standards, It makes for good governance, but is something Cecil County’s political leadership isn’t used to because media never has a question about the practice.

    I’ll bet Kent County Officials are much more careful about making decisions to push out the public because they know it’ll be challenged. Probably gives the newspaper some good material to report too.

    Elkton has been going into closed sessions a lot. Of course, on the other hand, they have a lot of laws suit going on. Don’t think they won any and one commissioner wouild remark “isn’t it about time we won one.”

    I’ll keep you informed. We have several other important stories in the pipeline beyond editorials and are just working our sources and waiting for confirmation from other oversight agencies.

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