Commentary: Elkton — This is Not How Open, Transparent Goverments Behave; Some Gentle Reminders for Elected Officials

Commentary

Elkton Town Hall, Sept., 1, 2010 — As Mayor Joseph Fisona continues implementing regressive practices that make it difficult to monitor Elkton’s public business, Someone Noticed sought to have a dialogue with the board about these counterproductive matters.  The series of Fisona administration steps kicked off in August 2008, when the mayor established stricter rules for public comment.  Over the next two years, he piled more on as he said meetings went off course.  His most recent directive suddenly stopped the long-time practice of videotaping workshops.

As a result, a citizen today has a harder time following deliberations and they only have the opportunity to make comments after officials render decision.  This is neither helpful for the political leadership or the public as the board tries to make informed decisions with all information including constituent opinions.    

In this area of open government and putting sunshine on proceedings, it’s astonishing what a difference a year makes.  Twelve months ago Elkton’s political leadership pushed to take a giant leap into the 21st century digital age by streaming commissioner’s meetings on the Internet.  It was going to make Elkton government more transparent and accessible to a larger array of people, Commissioner Jablonski argued as she pushed to open up the process.  Once they approved webcasting, the leadership decided they needed more sunshine so it was time to tweet and twitter.  The political leaders also tossed in Facebook for added measure.

Saying you favor transparency in government while toying with social media may help politicians put a spin on their openness, but that’s where it ends.  When citizens can’t easily keep an eye on public bodies or offer input before decisions and directives get the town hauled into court to admit they’ve made an error, there is a problem.  This growing gap in openness is why Someone Noticed decided to try to have a professional discussion with the political leadership to stress the opportunities to create improved outcomes for the betterment of the Fisona administration and the community.   

The Maryland Open Meeting Act notes that it is essential to the maintenance of a democratic society that public business be performed in an open and public manner and that citizens be allowed to observe the performance of official deliberations.  That philosophy brings us to our points for the board.  Considering Elkton’s public record of legal wrangling that frequently get them hauled into court and settling before officials testify, we thought we should have this discussion as we seek to constructively contribute to opening up the process. 

Here are the key points we discussed.

  1. Videotaping – Since Elkton has stopped recording its workshops, the most important meetings, from the standpoint of anyone trying to following deliberations, Someone Noticed will start recording the workshops as we have the capability to stream the meetings.  However, considering Elkton’s record of legal wrangling, we thought we should have this discussion before the first workshop on Sept. 8th, in order to save lots of trouble for everyone.  The Maryland Act clearly says that proceedings may be videotaped by media and citizens.  The State Board has rendered a number of decisions such as Poolesville, Centreville and Frederick, confirming this public right, so we thought we should let the Elkton officials know.
  2. Public’s Right to Videotape Meetings — As it turned out, this was a good idea, since the town attorney disagreed with this right, saying that observers and media could take photographs but not record meetings.  So we offered our citations.  Hopefully they’ll check those out ahead of the Sept. 8th workshop.   In line with our mission as a citizen journalism site focusing on municipal news in Elkton, we’ll start providing this new videostreaming service starting with the upcoming workshop,  since Mayor Fisona suddenly stopped a long-established practice in Elkton that was helpful for citizens doing nothing more than try to stay informed. 
  3. Closed Meetings – Our repeated plea here is for all officials to be vigilant, making sure that the guidelines of the Maryland Open Meeting board are strictly followed.  Any discussion behind closed doors should be strictly limited to the narrow circumstances outlined in the motion.  Each commissioner certifies compliance with these basic Maryland rules when they sign the summary record of the session. 
  4. Closing Procedure  — When they usher the public out to discuss something behind closed doors, they typically just cite a section of the law, without providing any additional supporting information.  The Maryland sunshine act requires a disclosure that provides some detail beyond repeating the statutory justification, which is what Elkton does as it shuts the doors on the public.  In decisions in Centreville and elsewhere the Attorney General says that officials need to provide sufficient information that allows the public to assess the validity of closing the meeting. 
  5. Professional Decision Making – We made a plea for the town to use professional problem solving methods when they seek to solve some of the growing, complex issues facing the municipality.  The elected leaders have an excellent staff and rather than having the politicians try to engineer solutions, they should make problem statements and hand the matters over to professionals, charging them with developing recommendations.  By asking capably trained and credentialed staff to examine the complex problems, such as the growing social issues, or need for effective strategies to revitalize the downtown, and lots more, the elected officials would have more thoroughly evaluated options to consider.  Right now the politicians tend to jump in and push something before the staff has been consulted and that’s what tends to get them into legal tangles with the ACLU and taxpayers.  It also results in situations that aren’t professionally managed. 

Elkton has the talk down about open government and how they use social media for that supposed purpose, but they don’t walk that talk on what really counts, creating government transparency.  Someone Noticed urges Elkton’s elected officials to make their doings more open, which includes providing opportunities for citizens to provide valuable input before the decisions are made.

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10 responses to “Commentary: Elkton — This is Not How Open, Transparent Goverments Behave; Some Gentle Reminders for Elected Officials

  1. (Applause is heard from way up in Pottstown, PA for this post!)

    Unfortunately, you know that even though you’ve provided a succinct outline on what is required and what must be done – citing statute and precedents – the town’s elected officials will be spending money with their attorney to figure out if they can restrict access as they intend.

    Can you find out how much time the attorney spends on this (including their hourly rate) and report back on how many taxpayer dollars are spent on a lost cause that this certainly is for them?

    Now that you have outlined what they must do – regarding the closed-door meetings and the process they must follow to do it (to adhere to the law) – the only way they will follow it is if you hold them accountable.

    If it’s done improperly, object to it and ask that they enter your objection into the record. When they don’t follow through and explain following a meeting of this type — you are going to have to meet with someone from the Attorney General’s Office and file a complaint.

    When I was covering the town’s business in the 1990s, you’re very aware of the stories that kept me at odds with the political infrastructure. My publisher wouldn’t allow me to take those steps. “We just hold up a mirror to the community and show them what’s going on…” was what I was often told.

    It’s my considered opinion that for change to happen, you must be willing to take a stand, assert your rights and the rights of any town citizen, and follow through to ensure your elected officials are accountable.

    BTW – please make sure your camera is rolling when they tell you they are not allowing you to record their sessions. I think it would make great footage on Channel 2, Channel 11 and Channel 13. (Oh – and do you think the mayor and staff would prohibit one of their film crews from covering an open meeting? I think not.)

  2. Thanks Wayne. In other places the local media would hold local officials accountable for open government, but that doesn’t happen around here these days. Down in Chestertown, the Kent County news creates a story any time local boards shut their doors to the public and they force the officials to say why they’re closing the doors. They take that and if it doesn’t appear to meet guidelines, the editor and political reporter down there file complaints with the Maryland Open Meetings Board and they often win them. Each year they’ll have some. That used to be one of the roles of a newspaper, and it helps create good govenrment, for the officials in our neighboring ocunty know they’d better get it right.

    We’re watching what they do at the Kent County News and also down in Centreville and we’ll follow those practices as a model.

    As you suggest the Maryland Open meetings Board has an entire procedure on how to properly close meetings and also on how to file complaints. So we’ll politely and gently follow those practices and hopefully it’s not necessary to build a formal case. But as you know every well!. This isn’t the first time they’ve been asked to follow proper procedures when closing meetings.

    BTW, I still remember those excellent pieces of investigative reporting for a small town weekly editor with an newsroom staff of one that invovled these sorts of things. Good journalism there, that had people grabbing up newspapers.

  3. Mike I see on the town web site that the workshop for tonight has been cancelled I wonder what’s up with that

    • Thanks Steve. I put up an announcement to alert those following the proceedings of the town and I’ve emailed the mayor and the town adminsitrator to inquire about the matter.

  4. Mike,
    Do you think you should mail or e-mail a copy of this post to each of the commissioners and the Mayor? We all know that they read this site but I can also see them playing ignorant and trying to have you arrested!

    • Debbie:

      Probably a good idea. Too I thought I’d take in some of the case decisions and pass out at the next meeting where the public is allowed to talk after all the deciions are made. That’ll help them see come of the cases I’m citing since the discussions about these minimal requirements have created confusion in the past.

      I’ll bet down in Kent County the officials know the requirements there since whenevcer they violate them the Kent County News files a complaint with the open meetings board.

  5. Mike, thank you for your vigilance in pursuing open meetings and video recordings. I am sure that researching these legal precedents takes great amounts of time and effort.

    Your point of letting the professional staff weigh in is excellent. The Board should rely on staff to prepare advice rather than making realtime decisions in the absence of complete information.

    It certainly is perplexing why the mayor & commissioners would go to such great lengths to keep the public out of the dialogue. While it does offer the opportunity for meetings to run less smoothly, it also offers the opportunity for citizens with professional experience and expertise to weight in on coml;icated decisions.

    • Thanks Bob. Actually these days with Google and such and the links to the decisions its rather quick. That’s why I’m always surprized that public officials aren’t more up on these minimal requirements.

      On this matter about letting the professionals problem solve things while the politicians provide strategic input and keep things moving along, is really one of Elkton’s biggest problems. The political leadership, time and time again, just jumps into these compelx problems that really require lots of professional experience to solve, and develop expedient and/or political solutions. I’ve watched them in many of these instances, as the town lawyer says don’t do it, the assistant town adminitrator says it failed in Washingotn, D.C., and others add warnings. Then the commissioner pushing the project gets mad at them for offering years of insight and advanced understanding because they’re resisiting their idea. That happens again and again. When the Sr. Housing Project came up, many of the town employees that had a good understand about all the legal requirements the town was violating weren’t brought into it until the last few minutes. That left them to finally say, well I guess this is something you want to do. But yet you read the email trail and there were plenty of warnings about what was going to happen if they approved it. Those warnings were coming from the professional staff, as the politicians pushed hard to make it happen. Then the rest of it we watched in court. There are plenty more.

      ‘this type of professional problem solivng is something Elkton needs with its growing social and economic development problems. There are solutions out there if they’ll take the time to the strategy right and implement it properly. The perhaps they won’t end up in court with the ACLU and others again.

  6. thanks mike for all of the info. i work evenings and can’t attend the meetings, so i really miss the video.

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