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.