The Open Meetings Compliance Board for the State of Maryland has determined that the City of Rockville violated the Open Meetings Act, according to a seven-page opinion issued today to Lois Neuman, Chair of the Board of Supervisors of Elections in the City of Rockville:
We have concluded that the [Mayor and] Council and the Elections Board did not timely adopt meeting minutes for meetings in 2015, and we have noted that the City will be adding staff to enable these public bodies to do that more quickly. We have also concluded that the Elections Board’s practice of providing notice through its agendas did not always convey the required information reasonably in advance of each meeting.
All “public bodies” in Maryland, which includes most state, county, city, school, and other boards and commissions, should “hold their meetings in public, to give the public adequate notice of those meetings, and to allow the public to inspect meetings minutes” in order to “increase the public’s faith in government, ensure the accountability of government to the public, and enhance the public’s ability to participate effectively in our democracy.”
I’ve noted the inconsistency of minutes for city boards and commissions previously and it’s received attention at times by the City, but with the truly awful delays with the Board of Supervisors of Elections during an election year in 2015 (by the end of the year, missing minutes stretched back to March), I felt I needed to make the issue more public and serious by filing a complaint with the Open Meetings Compliance Board in February. The City scrambled to catch up in the months that followed and promised to add more staff to the City Clerk’s Office, but it only verified a serious weakness in the Mayor and Council. All of the boards report directly to the Mayor and Council, so their failure to run their meetings publicly and effectively rests not only on the shoulders of chairman/chairwoman of each board but also on the Mayor and Council. The City Clerk reports directly to the Mayor and Council, but that position was only recently filled by the Mayor and Council after a vacancy of more than 18 months.
While the Open Meetings Compliance Board stated that the City of Rockville violated state law, it does not have the power to force compliance or issue a penalty. The City can easily ignore it and continue to practice bad behavior. Or it can get serious about government transparency and board practices and institute guidelines and training to ensure this doesn’t happen again (or at least not so frequently). It also is a reminder that the Open Meeting Act needs to be revised to improve transparency and provide penalties, which can only be done with the help of State Senator Kagan and State Delegates Barve, Gilchrist, and Platt. In the latest legislative session, Delegates Barve and Platt co-sponsored a bill to strengthen the Open Meetings Act (HB0823 and SB598) by requiring training of all “public bodies” and increased publicity for violations. Common Cause Maryland added its support but unfortunately the Senate Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs Committee (which includes Senator Kagan of Rockville) gave it unfavorable report and it died (the Committee also killed SB599, which would require public comments be made public—huh?). Delegate Barve reported that, “There is a good chance this bill will be reintroduced again next year by its primary sponsors.” On the other hand, Governor Hogan did sign a bill that extends the time that minutes and recordings of open meetings must be retained from one to five years.
Correction May 30, 2016: this post originally stated that HB823 passed but a follow-up conversation with Delegate Barve showed that the Senate version (SB598) never made it out of committee, hence didn’t receive a vote from the Senate or House.