As Cecil County Commissioners Talk Transparency, Baltimore Law Firm Responds to Open Meetings Act Complaint for the County

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.

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8 responses to “As Cecil County Commissioners Talk Transparency, Baltimore Law Firm Responds to Open Meetings Act Complaint for the County

  1. So this is Cecil Co transparency in action.

  2. Apparently so Conowingo Bob.

    Here we are a few days out of sunshine week and we find out about a cluster of open door concerns.

    The commissioners had a closed door meeting complaint filed against them from early in 2010 and that news just came out. They have a high power law firm from Baltimore representing them on that. At the time they did it we wrote an editorial saying we didn’t think it met the criteria for pushing the public out of observing the discusison. Now I guess we’ll see what happens once a determination comes in. It would be most appropriate if our commissioners and legal staff would think carefully about closing the doors to the public as they do in other places. But here it is not something they’re used to.

    Then we’ve got the case in Feb of this year where there were meeting with the casino and the stated reason was to meet with a company about opening, closing, or expanding. From the discussions we’ve heard, it once again doesn’t seem appropriate. We ask all commissioners to stand up for the public’s right to know what they’re doing. Thus far the only one we’ve heard is Commissioner Broomell. Nothing would make us happer to report that three or four of them were pushing for the publics right to know.

    Then we’ve got the case where they can’t figure out what they did in the minutes and as much of that occurred in closed door sessions the public can’t help or the audio recordings aren’t available to use to help out.

  3. Jackie Gregory

    During the times the commissioners have entered a closed session, the vote has been unanimous to do so, including Commissioner Broomell, so to imply that there is any difference between the commissioners on this issue is misleading. Commissioner Broomell did advocate for videotaping the meetings, and with her urging, the commissioners now at least have audio-taped worksessions. Yes, it was through her instigation that this happened, and for that I am glad, but at the same time, the other commissioners seem to support the idea as well, so to imply again, that any of the other commissioners are against the transparency provided by the audio is misleading.

  4. you are right Jackie. Thanks for getting the record right. Broomell doesn’t do anything special. All them are for being open about things like you say. Some people on here trying to make it look like she is doing special things to let people know what is going on. Well she isnt. She favors closing those meetings just like the rest of them. She also didn’t do anything special to get those meeting recorded. They all order that it be recorded. All she ever talked about was those expensive video systems. That was her ideal. How to spend money on a system we don’t want.

  5. Jackie Gregory

    I wouldn’t go that far. I don’t think we would be listening to recorded meetings now if she had not pressed with the issue; it wasn’t happening on its own. As far as videotaping goes, that would be my leaning, but it depends on the cost since we are not exactly overflowing with cash right now, and obviously since we can at least listen to the meetings now, it would be a want, not a need. Also, it would depend on what the community wants. Commissioner Broomell was interested in hearing feedback and ideas. There were various cost figures out there, some low end, and some very expensive; the intial figure which was very expensive was significantly reduced after some research.

    • I suggest polygraphs for the “3 Amigos” when they offer their pious “holier than the Ethics Commission” reasons for cheating Hodge out of his citizen rights.

  6. I think that when Broomell was on the outside, all her talk about transparency seemed like a good idea.

    Now that she is on the inside, and actually has every word recorded, that transparency seems a little less important. They all need time for their secrets, away from prying public eyes and behind closed doors so that the really important things (way too important, complicated and cerebral for the average, dumb tax paying citizen) can be hashed out…getting their stories and attacks in line. And when it is not recorded, they don’t have to worry about misstatements, insults, lies, lapsus linguae, or anything that would then necessitate deletion from public record.

    Campaign promises and rhetoric turn into elected official mumbo-jumbo non-speak.

  7. Mike,

    Do you have any idea why the audio of Commissioners’ meeting on April 5 has not been posted? I have called personnel at the County Building and their response has been ‘dun kno’.

    You would think that in the New Age of Transparency extolled by the Board, they would expedite updating the public on their wise and fair management of Cecil County. Let the public hear and know why ‘Commissioner Hodge left the meeting’ and the remaining votes were all unanimous. Let us all hear their astute deliberations and sage judgments.

    The other disturbing situation is that every time I go to see the ‘Commissioners responses to survey suggestions’, click on the link and get ‘Cecil County Commissioners Responses to Cost Saving Suggestions…Responses to your cost saving suggestions will be listed here’, there is nothing listed…no responses.

    Why do they even promise these things if they are not going to follow through?

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