A decision the county commissioners made last year to shut the public out of a discussion on hiring a Washington, D. C. area lobbying firm to represent local officials in Annapolis has resulted in a complaint being filed with the Maryland Open Meetings Compliance Board. The commissioners contracted with S. G. Proctor to fight two pieces of legislation, one dealing with collective bargaining for deputies and the other concerning the property tax rate setting authority, in February 2010, according to a press release.
The two closed-door sessions created controversy and several media outlets wrote about the meetings that excluded the public. Responding to questions about the decision Commissioners Hodge and Demmler told the Cecil Whig, “It was legal to hire the firm in closed session because it was part of a negotiated contract. We had no intention of hiding what we did. That’s why we asked (county Administrator) Al (Wein) to send a press release about it Tuesday afternoon. We were very transparent.”
Hiring the lobbyist was so important, President Lockhart told the paper he was going to recommend the commissioners personally split the cost or he’d pay for it all himself. He referred other queries to County Attorney Norman Wilson, but he was unavilable for comment.
There were several reasons the board stated it shut the door to the public. The primary one was that they were meeting in a closed door session to award a contract or to have a discussion about negotiating strategies related to bid proposals. The county could only do that if the public discussion or disclosure would adversely impact the ability of the public board to participate in the competitive bidding, according to Maryland guidelines.
Now the county has a Baltimore area law firm, Miles & Stockbridge, representing them on this matter. They are a ”a leading law firm with approximately 220 lawyers practicing in eight offices located within the mid-Atlantic region” representing businesses of various sizes, from national and global companies to local and emerging businesses, in a wide variety of industries, according to their website.
The commissioners “believe they can discuss and approve contracts in closed sessions and be transparent by issuing a press release. We know this is not the case,” Craig O’Donnell wrote in his complaint. In a document from February 2011, he added: “[T]he explanation advanced by Demmler and Hodge is either incorrect or misdirection. A negotiated contract has nothing to do with whether the session was properly closed, and in fact, negotiations and contracts generally are not within the 14 exceptions.”
O’Donnell concludes his formal rebuttal by arguing: “It is apparent that the secret meeting was in fact a strategy session with the potential consultant, who presumably had already been chosen in some manner unknown to the public, not a presentation in response to a competitive bid or proposal? The proof? No one else gave such a presentation in an interview nor have the supposed proposals reviewed on Feb. 9 ever been revealed to the public; the minutes do not even include the firms’ names.
This complaint comes at a time when a number fo the commissioners talk about having transparency in local government. It also comes at a time when another closed door meeting, this one involving recent meetings with the casino, has created questions. In that situation the commissioners reported on a state required form that the board met with a corporation to talk about opening, expanding or closed an enterprise in the county. The O’Donnell complaint is in the hands of the Maryland Board for a determination.