As Commissioners Struggle to Approve Mintues of Earlier Meetings, They Decide to Go Behind Closed Doors to Sort Out What Happened

Cecil County Commissioners Workshop — March 8, 2011 — At this week’s workshop a  normally routine matter, the approval of the minutes, ended up causing a great deal of confusion as officials decided they’d better go back behind closed doors to sort out what actually occurred.  Granted there were nearly ten records that had to be reviewed and approved as some stretched back for months.  But that doesn’t explain the confusing that took place as elected officials differed over earlier proceedings.  With lots of talk ensuing about what occurred and what should be in the record, they approved some while deciding they’d better get behind closed doors to figure the others out.

Once President Mullin routinely called for approval of the cluster of minutes, Commissioners Hodge and Moore made motions for approval.  But Commissioner Broomell had a series of substantial objections, many of them associated with the recent closed door session with the casino.  For that earlier meeting, the board justified shutting the public out by saying they were meeting with a company to help it open, expand or keep it from closing.  But once the officials opened the door, it became clear they were meeting with representatives of the casino to discuss returning some of the revenue the casino hands over to the county for distribution to projects having an impact on the area. 

Concerned that the minutes didn’t properly reflect the dialogue that occurred with casino representatives, along with some other matters, the western Cecil County official worried about the vagueness of some records, missing actions in others, and statement about thing she didn’t recall taking place.

For about 15 minutes it went back and forth over these sorts of details.   Part of it centered on the vague nature of the original agreement with the casino, according to Commissioner Broomell.   (The previous board of commissioners agreed to the terms through an email vote.)  At one point, Commissioner Hodge interrupted her saying, “You can add stuff but you can’t take out what was said.  Commissioner Broomell replied, I don’t remember that being said.

Another time when they were discussing whether the county budget manager, Craig Whiteford, had said the local impact fund money being returned to the casino would be split between Perryville and the County, there was another exchange.  In that one, as Commissioner Hodge disagreed with some corrections she was asking for, the official replied, “I think we’re using these records to look back and to see what actually was agreed upon. . .   There was no formal vote recorded in the minutes for the letter to be sent out to Penn National.  I don’t see that in the minutes anywhere.” 

About this time the county attorney, Norman Wilson, got into the conversation about amending the official record.    “Commissioner Broomell we’re talking about closed sessions minutes that haven’t been approved yet.  They really shouldn’t be brought out in public.”  President Mullin and other weighed in and it was decided that they’d get the people out of the way and go behind closed doors to sort out what did or didn’t happen in those sessions involving important business agreement.    

As they struggled to approve some of the other recordations and defer others a little longer, the county attorney largely guided them through the multi-step process.  So the public will wait for the commissioners to get behind closed doors to talk about  what actions they did or didn’t take at some closed door sessions.  Once they sort it, a thoroughly but privately vetted and aired amended record will be released for public examination.  Meanwhile Someone Noticed has asked to see copies of these documents as they were discussed extensively in an open meeting, making them part of the public record.

Editor’s Note — The recent recording of meetings, something Commissioner Broomell had pushed for, now allows the public to hear discussions directly, without the filter of any media outlet or blogger.  To hear the commissioners in their own words, click on the link below.

http://ccgov.org/cmup/ws/03082011.worksession.segment1.meetingminutes.MP3

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9 responses to “As Commissioners Struggle to Approve Mintues of Earlier Meetings, They Decide to Go Behind Closed Doors to Sort Out What Happened

  1. All I can say is that if you don’t demand open discussion – in a public meeting – you deserve what you get. The State of Maryland – and many others – put laws in place to help keep this from happening, but it requires SOMEONE to take action and bring it to the attention of those who can tack action.

    File a complaint. Get someone from outside Cecil County to weigh in on the appropriateness of these closed door sessions.

    And, any attorney is going to try to get their bumbling clients away from prying eyes and ears. I was going to criticize Mr. Wilson about helping to keep things underwraps, but he wouldn’t be doing his job if he allowed them to continue to stumble in public.

    Get a complaint filed. If you don’t, you can’t grumble about what these guys do under the cover of darkness. Let the sun shine in, baby!

  2. Wayne, I agree. Stay tuned.

  3. Using the phrase “closed door session” with the word casino in the same sentence does not sound like a good combination. Sunshine is a great disinfectant – I am glad Commissioner Bromwell understands the implications, and I hope the other commissioners do as well.

  4. Milt, we agree. It struck us as most unusual when the declared reason was to meet with a corporation to keep it from closing or to help it to open or expand. Can’t wait to hear how that meeting helped to keep the casino from closing or is going to help it expand.

    When they walked out the door with casino representatives and then in the meeting it became clear that they were discussing earlier agreements that involved returning some of the casino revenue to the casino to help offset infastructure costs.

    It is so important that every elected official puts as much business as possible of local government in the light of day and that the local media outlets create accountability. Notice what they do in Kent County. You can bet the commissioners and their attorney down that way think twice before they rush behind closed doors or the small weekly will challange the decision editorially and with the state board.

  5. It seems as though the commissioners are doing themselves in. I couldn’t hear the mumbled, hush-hush conversations at the meeting, so the recording, though still hard to hear, sheds some light on the shenanigans (appropriate word on St Patrick’s day) going on. I wonder if Broomell is rethinking the rules of transparency to include revisionist history.

    What a pitiful display by our ‘leaders’.

  6. Raoul:

    Those “mumbled, hush-hush conversations” became most pronounced the second time around, when it become they still could’t agree on what had taken place in some important, earlier meetings though they’d had a week to try to iron out the details. While it was a little hard to hear as their voices softened, we were able to turn up the volume and catch enough to figure out most of what they were saying.

    We’re pleased they’re finally started recording these meetings, for if the officials participating in them have this much trouble figuring out what they decided in those earlier sessions what is the average citizen going to be able to determine. Now at least we can all listen in and generally determine what they’re talking about unless they start as you say talking in hushed tones as they “mumble.”

    Those recordings, for whatever the weakness, will at least generally document the real-time discusison. It is so good Commissioner Broomell took the lead on that and kept pushing for it until it happened. I’m sure sure she wished recordings were available from the disputed meetings where important things were discussed. We sure wish audio recordings were available, but at least now they are.

    Raoul why would she rethink her position on that? She initiatied the discussion to amend those earlier meetings and from what we can determine from the discussion thus far, her attempt was one to correct the public record to reflect what took place. Think if we could see the documents they were arguing about and had the tapes to verify what happened. The public could actually know what they did because the officals that attended those meetings were challenged as a collective body in agreeing what happened.

    As this matter was thoroughly aired in public thanks to Commissioner Broomell, we’ve asked to see copies of those documents. Someone Noticed maintains that the discusison in public was sufficient to make those items public records. The county has informed us that the commissioners will have to vote to release the records, so all of us could see what they were arguing about.

    We’ll see as we follow up on that. There are guidelines from the Maryland Open Meetings Law that must be met, and we need more advocates on the board, in the public and in the media.

    Our plea is for each commissioner to push as much of the public’s business out into the open as possible. We can’t wait to hear how the casino was going to close, open or expand as that was the reason the board said it rushed behind closed doors to conduct the people’s business. After that, once the got behind closed doors and sorted it out, they couldn’t get it straight in the minutes.

    Any official that’s a friend of sunshine on government and public information is someone we support. Thank you Commissioner Broomell for raising this issue and trying to amend the record of those closed door and other meetings to more accurately reflect what happened.

  7. Mike, what I heard both times, was that individuals, wanted their own words stricken from the record.

    Commissioner Dunn should realize that his words of anger, reflecting prior associations and circumstances, need to be kept to himself, particularly in a public forum whether it is recorded or not. This is not a schoolyard where you can shout ‘I take it back’.

    And yes, Broomell has advocated transparency…I just don’t believe she thought it would include her own actions, words, associations, public and personal life. What’s good for the gander is good for the goose.

    Is it not possible to get an accurate transcript so that they can begin to understand what they say? A stenographer should be used so that the commissioners wouldn’t have to rely on their cryptic notes and then try to revise public discourse to cover up or correct ignorant statement.

    And Mike, maybe if you let up on your fawning of broomell, I might let up with my criticism.

  8. Raoul, think of how hard it is any member of the public to know what anyone said at those closed door metings of our county government as the elected officials, the attorney, and all the professional staff and clerks, can’t sort it. Let us quickly add that we think the county has excellent professional and support staff on the regular payroll and we’re willing to bet that they have a better understanding of what the politicians were or weren’t saying than those elected officials as each of them comes at from different angles, reasons and perspectives.

    That being said, we might need a paid transcriptionist to help those officials figure out what happened at those important sessions, especially since they had to rush behind closed doors to talk to a business opening, expanding or closing. After Tari Moore moved and President Mullin seconded the motion and the board agreed the record was largley lost to the public (as it stands now) and apparenlty also lost to the commissioners. Can’t wait to hear, eventually, how this relates to helping the casino’s open, close or expand. Do you think the casino is talking about closing, open an additional site or expanding it’s operations in Cecil County? Talking to them about a previous contract they signed about taking some of the casino revenue and returning it to the casino doesn’t seem to involve expansion, closing or opening as defined by the Maryland Open Meetings Board. But we’ll see on that.

    Perhaps rather than the cost of a transcriptionist we can just have them start audio recordings of their closed door sessions. Or perhaps rather than rushing behind closed doors to discuss so much county business, why not just do it in the open. Sunshine on the actions of officials is a good thing for creating the best decisions for the public. We’d hope that eventually more politicians on the county board join in urging open business.

    From what we can see, Commissioner Broomell’s effort to open up government is helping all of us have some understanding of what was done here, so she much be pleased with that. We just wish her open government initaitiative had been in a place a month or two earlier so we could all, in an informed sort of way, help the officials figure out what they decided. As she said, you do want your official records to appropriately indicate what took place as they debated this thing over several sessions and the attorney said let’s get behind closed doors to sort it all out.

    This situation shows that more than ever.

  9. Mike,
    I agree, and have, as you know, advocated an end to close door sessions. I think even with this partial transparency (let’s call it the gauze effect) we are beginning to see the self-serving, debt-owing, back-room manipulation that is, and has been, taking place in local politics.

    Let’s see if the transparency goddess can lift that final veil and expose all. I won’t hold my breath.

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