In 2012, I reviewed Rockville’s boards and commissions to assess how openly they conducted their meetings during the previous year. It was a miserable showing, with about half not providing agendas or minutes. Four years later, it has improved and yet six “public bodies” received failing grades, including the Mayor and Council.
On September 1, 2015, I tallied the number of meetings and minutes posted on the City website for 2015 (that’s nine months from January 1, 2015 to August 31, 2015). By dividing the number of minutes by the number of meetings (cancelled meetings don’t count), I calculated a “government transparency score.” So if a commission had posted 9 minutes for 12 meetings, that would earn them a Minutes Score of 9/12 or 75%. The higher the score the better and anything lower than 60% is an F. Here’s how they fared:
- Mayor and Council: 30 meetings | 100% Agenda Score | 37% Minutes Score (note: meeting videos posted)
- Animal Matters Board: last met in January 2014
- Board of Appeals: 5 meetings | 100% Agenda Score | 40% Minutes Score (note: meeting videos posted)
- Board of Supervisors of Elections: 24 meetings | 100% Agenda Score | 21% Minutes Score
- Charter Review Commission: last met in March 2013
- Compensation Commission: 8 meetings | 100% Agenda Score | 100% Minutes Score
- Cultural Arts Commission: 6 meetings | 100% Agenda Score | 83% Minutes Score
- Environment Commission: 9 meetings | 100% Agenda Score | 89% Minutes Score
- Ethics Commission: 7 meetings | 100% Agenda Score | 71% Minutes Score
- Historic District Commission: 8 meetings | 100% Agenda Score | 75% Minutes Score (note: meeting videos posted)
- Human Rights Commission: 5 meetings | 100% Agenda Score | 0% Minutes Score
- Human Services Advisory Commission: 5 meetings | 100% Agenda Score | 80% Minutes Score
- Landlord/Tenant Affairs Commission: 5 meetings | 100% Agenda Score | 100% Minutes Score
- Planning Commission: 18 meetings | 100% Agenda Score | 56% Minutes Score (note: meeting videos posted)
- Recreation and Park Advisory Board: 6 meetings | 100% Agenda Score | 100% Minutes Score
- Retirement Board: 2 meetings | 100% Agenda Score | 50% Minutes Score
- Senior Citizens Commission: last met in November 2013
- Sign Review Board: 3 meetings | 100% Agenda Score | 0% Minutes Score
- Traffic and Transportation Commission: 4 meetings | 100% Agenda Score | 75% Minutes Score
The Results are Mixed
Every commission is providing agendas in advance of their meetings and posting them on the city web site (100% Agenda Score), a significant improvement compared to 2011. The quality of those agendas, however, varies tremendously. About half of the agendas don’t list the names of the members nor staff, so you don’t know who’s involved in making decisions, and strangely, a few agendas were amended after the meeting, sometimes months later. The Landlord/Tenant Affairs Commission is doing better by providing agendas compared to 2011 when none were provided, but they’re written like it’s a high school club, not a city commission. Its July 15, 2015 agenda reads, “The first Landlord Tenant Hearing is in regard to a security deposit dispute. The second is return of the security deposit and compensation for utility overages.” Really, that’s the agenda.
Four of the 19 commissions have posted all of their minutes for their meetings in 2012 (that’s 21 percent), leaving lots of room for improvement. Many are missing just one or two minutes and waiting to approve them at the next meeting–that’s reasonable. Six “public bodies” (including the Mayor and Council) receive an F for posting minutes for fewer than 60% of their meetings (including two commissions that had posted no, zero, zilch minutes). Maryland’s Open Meetings Act requires that minutes of meetings are prepared, adopted, and available for inspection as “soon as practicable.” Video recordings of the meetings are an acceptable alternative and that might excuse the Mayor and Council, Board of Appeals, and Planning Commission from preparing written minutes, but not the Board of Supervisors of Elections, Human Rights Commission, and Sign Review Board. They’re in violation of state law.
The Mayor and Council is responsible for all boards, commissions, committees, and taskforces. All city commissions report directly to the Mayor and Council and all members of city commissions are nominated by the Mayor and confirmed by the Council. Rockville’s government needs to be more transparent and accountable to its citizens, so here are my recommendations:
1.The Mayor and Council needs to eliminate commissions that aren’t meeting (and evidently are not needed). Appointing volunteers to a commission that doesn’t meet is silly and insults the intelligence of the community (“look, there’s lots of ways you can be involved, how about serving on a commission that never meets?” or “we really do care about this topic although we really never meet to discuss it”). The Animal Matters Board hasn’t met since January 2014 (20 months ago) and the Senior Citizens Commission hasn’t met since November 2013 (that’s nearly two years–and it’s seeking two more members!) so they either need to be abandoned or rethought. Don’t get me wrong. I love animals and respect seniors, but saying that Rockville cares about animals and seniors because we have commissions dedicated to their interests is a lie that we should stop believing.
2. The Mayor and Council needs to build capacity in the City Clerk’s office. The City Clerk/Treasurer is responsible for administrative support for the Mayor and Council, prepares ordinances and resolutions, processes zoning applications, acts as the city treasurer, coordinates city elections, preserves city records—and, whew, coordinates boards and commissions. That’s with one full-time position and one part-time position (there are also two part-time temporary positions, but they’re on loan from the county to help with the upcoming election). In a city revenues of $75 million, that’s ridiculous. In 2014, the City Clerk Work Group reviewed the City Clerk’s office because of continuing vacancies in the position and not only recommended a significant change in responsibilities but also additional staff. So far, the Mayor and Council hasn’t acted on any of the recommendations and we not only continue to be short-staffed in the Clerk’s office but have had an Acting City Clerk for more than a year. Really? The Mayor and Council only have three staff positions that report directly to them (City Manager, City Attorney, and City Clerk/Treasurer) and they can’t seem to get any traction on this one. When it comes to the basics of management, they’ve fumbled the ball (and I don’t think they even know the ball is missing).
3. The Mayor and Council needs to establish minimum standards for agendas and minutes for all boards and commissions, such as posting date, time, and place of the meeting; a list of voting members and city staff representatives; topics or issues listed in the order of discussion; and general information about public participation (e.g., ways to comment at the meeting, by letter, by email; how to attend if disabled; if decisions can be appealed; who to contact for more information). Maryland’s Open Meeting Act requires that public notices must include time, date, and place but that’s a pretty low threshold. The Board of Appeals and Traffic and Transportation Commission have established agenda formats that can serve as models to the others.
4. The Mayor and Council needs to establish deadlines for posting agendas and minutes to ensure the community is informed in a timely manner, especially for a city that lacks a newspaper. At the commission level, the Chair is responsible for managing the meeting, which not only means sitting in the “big chair” during the meeting and facilitating the discussion, but also ensuring that agendas and minutes are prepared in a timely manner. If the Mayor and Council appoint members to commissions, they can also remove members for failing to fulfill their duties. Let’s not reward bad behavior by retaining ineffective commission members. If a commission fails to post agendas and minutes in a reasonable manner, the Mayor and Council needs to fix the problem promptly. I’d start by discussing the issue with the commission chairs and if they’re unwilling or unable to resolve the problem, remove them. I hate to call out other community volunteers for being negligent, but this is a serious problem and deserves serious attention. And yes, there’s one more “public body” that been negligent: the Mayor and Council. The only people that can address that problem are the registered voters of Rockville, who can fix this in the upcoming election on November 3.