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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.