This week the City of Rockville responsed to my complaint that the City held nearly two dozen meetings last year without documenting their decisions and sharing them with the public. Among my complaints was that the Board of Supervisors of Elections failed to post minutes on a regular basis since March 11, 2015 and the Mayor and Council failed to post minutes of a closed Executive Session on January 25, 2015.
The City approved most of the missing minutes last week, which meant that it’s taken more than a year to provide minutes for some meetings. (If you watched the March 21 Council meeting, you probably didn’t notice it because it was part of the Consent Agenda and approved with no discussion.) That’s probably unacceptable under Maryland’s Open Meetings Act, which requires that minutes be provided “as soon as practicable.” The issue is now in the hands of Open Meetings Compliance Board, who is expected to announce their opinion next month. Although the Board doesn’t have the ability to compel the City to follow the law, it is incredibly embarrassing because it publicly and independently confirms that the City isn’t meeting openly and transparently, which is the basis for a genuine democracy.
The City says it wasn’t able to prepare the minutes because the City Clerk’s office prepares the minutes for both the Mayor and Council and the Board of Supervisors of Elections and “the City Clerk’s Office has been extremely short staffed.” That begs the question, so why was the City Clerk’s office short staffed? It’s because the City has been without a City Clerk since August 2014 and without a Deputy City Clerk since May 2015, leaving just one full-time employee. So why has the City Clerk position been vacant for more than 18 months? Because the Mayor and Council hasn’t hired a City Clerk, and without that City Clerk, the office can’t get back to functioning normally. The Mayor and Council is the only one who can fill that position, yet it’s been stumbling around for the last 600 days (and even longer, if you count the number of City Clerks that have come and gone in the last few years). With the recent departure of the City Manager, the City is now sitting on a three-legged stool with two broken legs. How long will it take before we’re fully functional again? How can a city function efficiently and effectively in this condition? What decent business operates like this?
The Mayor and Council is also responsible for all of the city’s boards and commissions. We’ve given the Mayor and Council the authority to appoint citizens to various boards and commissions to make decisions on our behalf, but in exchange for that authority, they’re expected to operate in an open and transparent manner. Open meetings are vital for a democracy. As is often been said, you can’t have accountability without transparency. In the case of the Board of Supervisors of Elections, it was especially important to be transparent last year because it was an election year, one that turned out to be fraught with more problems than usual. The Mayor and Council is far overdue in developing standards and expectations for all boards and commissions, and the place to start is gaining consistency on announcing meetings, preparing agendas, and approving minutes. This will help residents be more informed and engaged.
There’s a much bigger issue at stake. The Mayor and Council, along with many boards and commissions act as judges, so decisions need to be made fairly, honestly, and openly for everyone involved. It’s unfair if a judge helps one side but not with the other. It’s dishonest when it happens in secret. But unfair and dishonest decisions are being made by some members of the City Council and the Planning Commission. According to a lawsuit brought against the City of Rockville by ezStorage, a series of emails suggests that Mayor Bridget Newton, Councilmember Beryl Feinberg, and Planning Commissioner Charles Littlefield were deciding on a project while meeting privately with a small group of people (including council candidate Patrick Schoof) to plan strategy and share confidential information. In essence, the judges were secretly helping one side but not the other. Open meetings are vital to a democracy and good governance, but it appears that it isn’t happening enough in Rockville.