State Finds that Cecil County Commissioners Violated Opening Meetings Act

The Maryland Public Opening Meetings Board has determined that the Cecil County Board of Commissioners violated the State’s opening meeting act in February 2010 when the elected leadership discussed behind closed doors matters exceeding what is allowed by law.  The decision came about after a formal complaint was filed with the Attorney General’s Office by Craig O’Donnell of the Kent County News.  In an executive session, the county agreed to hire S. G. Proctor, a lobbying firm, to fight two pieces of legislation, one dealing with collective bargaining for deputies and the other concerning the property tax rate setting authority.   A statement released after the meeting said they also discussed personnel issues.

When concerns were brought up at that time, Commissioners Hodge and Demmler informed 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 [after the private session].  We were very transparent.”

In the complaint, O’Donnell wrote 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. . . . The 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 concluded a formal rebuttal to the Attorney General’s Office 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 came about as another closed door meeting, this one involving meetings with the casino, was creating 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 closing an enterprise in the county.  

The State Open Meetings Compliance Board wrote in its determination, “We conclude that the Commissioners violated the Act by discussing in closed meetings matters which exceeded the scope of the exceptions they cited and by failing in several instances to adequately identify the topics discussed and actions taken.”  The panel did note that the Board attempted to comply with the formalities or procedural steps of the act, “for the most part,” by keeping minutes, recording the vote and by issuing a closing statement.

Since Maryland’s Open Meetings Act and the Freedom of Information Act are important tools for keeping citizens informed and allowing media to cover stories, this matter of holding governmental entities accountable to the highest standards of those laws are important to us.

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20 responses to “State Finds that Cecil County Commissioners Violated Opening Meetings Act

  1. Big deal. Small price to pay to defeat binding arbitration. Real Republican leaders are fighting puplic employee union strangulation of government while Smigiel and Pipkin troll for political support. They used their stooges Mullin and Dunn to suggest cutting the public safety budget. Wake up FOP.

    • Hopefully GOP 1206 this reminds our Cecil Couny Commissioners to more carefully adhere to the regulations of Maryland’s Open Meetings Law. It’s designed to make sure all of us can watch as public business is conducted, whether we’re from the GOP or some other part of the citizenry. IIf politicians can slip behind closed doors whenver they want to, we’re all going to be poorly served for having lots of sunshine on the deliberations of local politicians helps them make better decsions for all the public. In Cecil County, unlike in other jurisidictions, the media rarely holds the politicians accountable in this area. In places where the political leaders are held strictly accountable by citizens and media they’re much more careful about slipping into a closed session. The Cecil County Commissioners have been doing a lot of business reccently in closed sessions and we’re curious as to whether the state law permits some of those, as well. When they were trying to sort out the mess with a situation where the previous board had agreed to hand-back over to the casino some revenue that had been collected from the casino (decision made behnd closed doors), the current board said they were meeting with a firm to talk it locating here, expanding or to try to keep it from leaving. It soon became obvious once they opened up the meeting that they were meeting with the casino to discuss the situation with reimbursing them from some cost. That doesn’t seem to related to what the commissioners said they were doing. We can’t wait to hear how that’s helping the casino expand or stopping it from closing. Another time, when there was a disagrement over changing zoning on land owned by one of the commssioners, an adjournmen was asked for and four of the commissioners departed from the room for a brief period. There are other expamples. These laws are designed to make government transparent and officials need to be held accountable in order to assure complaince. But perhaps GOP has some other ideas on accountability and what we in the pubilc should be allowed to know.

      • I believe that the county commissioners acted properly in fighting the SMIPKIN (Smigiel / Pipkin) attempt to impose binding arbitration and a constant yield tax cap on the county. Sad that they had to hire lobbyists to protect county residents from SMIPKIN. I believe that they acted properly in meeting privately to discuss legal matters in this case. Their sin was in citing the wrong exception. Why let your opponent sit in on strategy sessions? Ultimately, the public learned the facts. I am more concerned that The 3Amigos(Mullin, Dunn, and Broomell) seem to march in lockstep on policy and decisions, especially those that negatively impact SMIPKIN enemies. It must be mental telepathy because I am sure that they would not meet privately or receive instructions via text messages during meetings.

        • GOP, Commissioners Hodge and Demmmler told the Whig they wanted to be very transparent over this matter. That’s what they told the Whig. In published, after-the-fact comments, they had the county administrator rush a press release out to the public telling everyone what they’d done behind closed doors, because they wanted the people to know about the people’s business!

          The minimal protections that we have safeguarding the public’s right to know need to be adhered to in the stricktest sort of way, regardless of the issue being discussed. Otherwise think of the excues if polticians are allowed to decide when the end justifies the means.

          I still can’t wait to hear about the details on how the current board had to met with the casino to help it expand, keep it from closing or stop it from moving away. At least that’s what they said on the state required form as the reason they were meeting behind closed doors with some company. But it became obvious that it was the casino and they were talking about how to handle the issue of reimbursing them for cocsts they agreed to in earlier closed door meetings.

          Behind held accountable to the standards of the law is a good thing as it causes politicians to think twice when they know that there are accountabilities. Down in Kent County, the small town weekly with it’s small staff holds the politicians strictly accountable and you can be those political leaders are careful about deciding when to close a meeting.

  2. YEEEEEEEHHHHHHAAAAWWWWWWWWWWW I’MMMM BACK! Have you missed me? IT IS I, THE GREATEST MILITARY OFFICER ALIVE–GEORGE ARMSTRONG CUSTER! Fondest greetings to you all. Please pardon my absence, myself and my men have been out searchin’ for Sitting Bull Smigiel and Crazy Horse Pipkin. Some fella’ by the name of Dunn told us they were hidin’ out in the Montana Territory. I finally tracked them down up there at a place called Little Big Horn and–well–we’re not gonna talk about that!
    Let me just tell ya what I think about those Cecil County commishes over there in Delaware…they are no good! They are just as bad as those Tammany Hall politicians up there in New York, or that bafoon Dan Sickles! I am not surprised that they violated that act considering they’re all Smipkins. Those Smipkins never follow those rules because they think they are above them! NO ONE is above the rules–except for me!

  3. Conowingo Bob

    Yeap those are our commissioners. Hide anything important from taxpayers. Commissioners don’t want the voters knowing the truth. Might cost them commissioners a few votes.

    • Conowingo Bob, hopefully a few decisions such as this simply encourage the commissioners to think twice when they want to rush behind closed doors in order to assure they’re adhering to state regulations. It seems to us that there have been a number of situations in 2011 where the state sunshine law wasn’t followed.

  4. Curious George

    Quick Quick call the whig. They missed it Noting about it in that trail in the paper or about that closed meeting. [EDIT — sentence removed by Someone Noticed.] You bloggers need to let them know.

    • A couple of things Curious George.
      I’m not sure why the Whig hasn’t covered the decision. Their sister publication, the Kent County News, publishes a news piece explaining why a governmental body in Kent has gone behind closed doors to conduct the peoples business and to give the reason the officials handed out. That routine coverage of the beat keeps the spotlight on things, helping to make sure officials are careful about when they decide to conduct private business.

      And whenver there’s a ruling that a governmental body violated the state’s sunshine act, that’s separate story and frequenlty the subject of an editorial. it all contributes to the quality of good decision making and public participation in local government.

      Just to be fair, the Whig did mention something about the closed door meeting a week or so after it happened last year. That’s when they quoted Commissioneners Hodge and Demmler, explaining why they’d been transparent in the process.

      • Curious George, I missed one of your remarks. It wasn’t a trial or court case. To try to reduce the amount of litigation involved in these things, Maryland has a review board, the Maryland Open Meetings Act Board, that has adminstrative jurisidiction for independenlty reviewing the facts and coming to determinations. It was that board that came to the decision.

  5. These open meeting violations occurred during the last crop of county commissioners, while they were at odds with Pipkin and Smigiel, and in the process of hiring a lobbyist to oppose them in Annapolis. If I believe the accusations of the previous posts, we are now to believe that those same commissioners were puppets of Pipkin and Smigiel. This is illogical. The posters on this blog seem to see a Smipkin around every corner.

    • Hu shanjian, I’d encourage all of us to push for transprency on local government in accordance with the sate guidelines. It ‘ll serve us all well as the political issues go round and around. The next time, GOP will be arguign that he wants sunshine and transparency when it’s another issue another group is pushing. That’s why we should all hold them accountable for performance to the law.

      • How do state guidelines protect us in a situation where a majority of a board meets privately without the meeting appearing on the county website? How about a conference call among the majority? Seems like the law does not hold these violators accountable.

        • GOP 1206, the state guidelines are clear, whenever a majority of the board meets to discuss county business the meeting has to be advertised as an open meeting so the public and the media can monitor the discussion. There are many decisions made about these types of violations elsewhere around the state concerning that requirement. In fact, just recenlty the Galena Town Council and Kent County Library board violated the standard when they met privatley with the library board to iron things out. Of course, the newspaper in Kent County called them on that.

          If the majority of the board meets behind closed doors to make the decision before they go public, they’re wrong. There are some limited situations where the board may meet in an executive session, but Cecil County often violates that standard, we believe. But these other private meetings are another matter and President Mullins public comments seem to indicate that such things are routine. That bothers us at Someone Noticed. President Mullin is wrong to suggest they move negotiations about the budget behind closed doors as they’re all Republicans. They’re there as elected officials, not just Republicans and they need to follow the laws. His remarks saying let’s move this debate behind closed doors seem to indicate that’s happening often.

          We’re working on a piece from that angle and we’re seeking his comments. Should have something up in the next few days.
          We all should want open government so all of us, regardless of whether we believe in big govenrment or or members of the tea party can hear the discussion.

          President Mullin, please striclty follow the standards of the Maryland Open Meetings Public and be an advocate for public meetings.

    • “Leaky Jim” Mullin was the only SMIPKIN on the prior board.

      • Ed we were real disappointed to hear the chair of our governmental board, President Jim Mullin, suggest they take a discussion about levying taxes behind closed doors. We don’t think Maryland Open Meeting Laws support such actions for when they’re making public decisions, outside the confines of a few narrow limitations, they have to do that in public. One would think that last determination of violation would make them be more cautious about that, but apparently not. It’s not about Republicans being able to rush behind closed doors to negotiate their differences. It’s about community governance and those discussions need to occur in public, though we did notice that the Whig seemed to understand that comment.

  6. Gee Hu, why would you think that? Perhaps were are all getting so disgusted with politicians…ALL politicians…that the lines of corruption, collusion, retribution, greed, rewards and subjugation have become so blurred that you can not tell one pole cat from the other. We can all give a ‘nod’ to that.

    Hi Mike.

    • Raoul!!! Welcome back!!! You and Hu!!! and General Custer!!! What a coincidence!!! All we need is Bee!!!

    • Rauol, you might have something there. Whether we’re supporters of conservative Republicans, Progressives or others at some point in between, we all want lots of public exposure on what the politicans do. In the past media played a balancing role by helping make sure the public had info on knows what was going on and thus allowing people to provide feedback or pressure. That’s exactly what happens in Kent Co. as that small weekly routinely challenges decisions to go behind closed doors to conduc business, but I don’t think local legacy media in Cecil has ever seen a reason to challenge the officials. Somehow the paper in Chestertown sees it differently. Interesting that a reporter from elsewhere filed the complaint.

      It all helps to keep a balance in things when a politician knows that his decisions will be examined by a large part of the public and not just his or her particular faction or insider group. It jus makes them think a little more and be more balanced in making decisions.

      Now if you and Hu start agreeing, goodness.

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