Rockville City Manager Faces Performance Improvement Plan in Surprise Session
In an extraordinary last-minute Closed Session held on Thursday morning, May 11, 2023, the Rockville City Council put the City Manager Rob DiSpirito into a three-month Performance Improvement Plan (PIP) for reasons unknown. Improvement Plan (PIP) is a formal, structured process designed to help underperforming employees identify and overcome performance issues. It outlines specific goals, expectations, and timelines for improvement, along with support, resources, and regular progress evaluations to facilitate success and growth.
When the Council came out of Closed Session, Councilmember Monique Ashton quickly moved for the PIP and was supported by Councilmember Beryl Feinberg. Mayor Bridget Newtown rushed for a vote without a discussion, but was interrupted by Councilmember Mark Pierzchala to note that, “I don’t know how the sequence of events unrolled but I’m not going to vote for it. I think things have moved past the point where a performance improvement plan is going to be effective. So I’m gonna vote against it. I had asked to make the first motion but that was not allowed, apparently. I’m not sure where that came from. Thank you.” The motion passed 4-1 with Councilmember Pierzchala voting against. A brief three-minute video is available at https://youtu.be/fIu7e9cHhoo, but of course, the closed session portion is held in secret and it’s unclear how long they debated the issue.
I typically discourage Closed Sessions because they are secret and prevent voters from knowing what’s happening—and Closed Sessions usually deal with major issues. Fortunately, Maryland has an Open Meetings Act to keep council and board meetings available to the public so they can be “in the room where it happens.” A quick introduction is available as FAQs, but here are a fundamentals:
- The Maryland Open Meeting Act lists 15 topics that the City Counci) may choose to discuss behind closed doors under specific conditions. These topics or “exceptions,” include personnel discussions about particular individuals, the receipt of legal advice from the public body’s attorney, and subjects that must be kept confidential under other laws. A discussion on “the appointment, employment, assignment, promotion, discipline, demotion, compensation, removal, resignation, or performance evaluation of an employee over whom the Mayor and Council has jurisdiction” is an appropriate reason for the Closed Session on May 11.
- Public bodies must make an agenda available before each meeting, either when notice is posted, if the items of business are known then, or as soon as practicable, but no later than 24 hours before the meeting. There is an exception for meetings held in response to emergencies. This Closed Session was not publicized as an emergency and the the agenda was posted on the city website on May 10 at 5:20 pm, that’s less than 18 hours in advance, so is in violation of the Act. Furthermore, it was not sent out as an email to those who subscribe to the City Council’s agendas (thanks to a blog reader who alerted me to this meeting).
- This meeting was not publicized an emergency, so why the rush? Two councilmembers had difficulties attending in person. Councilmember Myles was absent at the start of the meeting and showed up virtually later. Councilmember Ashton started the meeting virtually and joined in-person by the end. How much of the Closed Session discussion did they miss? Councilmember Ashton didn’t even notice that the vote to go into Closed Session occurred.
Most management leaders will emphasize that employees are the organization’s most important assets so how well are these assets being managed in the City of Rockville? Most of the current councilmembers lack significant experience in supervising employees and the City Council has a poor record of managing its most senior staff. The City Manager, City Attorney, and City Clerk have each been dismissed during Mayor Newton’s tenure. After a while, the only common denominator to these problems is the City Council.
The City Council needs to provide a better explanation for this decision and how they handle Closed Sessions. Or it’s time to rethink their privilege to serve.
May 21, 2023: This post was corrected to show a vote of 4-1 in the caption of the photo.
When is the Next Council Meeting? Agenda Center Creates Confusion
In an effort to better align with the requirements of Maryland’s Open Meetings Act, the City of Rockville has revised the Agenda Center for Mayor and Council to included anything and everything that might be attended by one or more councilmembers. The City has violated the Open Meetings Act in previous years and new City Attorney is reviewing everything to assure compliance. The problem is that the Agenda Center is now a mishmash that makes it difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff. Can you easily locate the regular meeting of the Mayor and Council in this screenshot of the Agenda Center?
The confusion is caused by treating all meetings the same, when they’re not. Residents and businesses want to attend the meetings that have the most impact on them, which are the Mayor and Council meetings. While a councilmember may attend the East Rockville Civic Association or the Rockville Economic Development board meeting, the City Council is not making decisions about taxes or ordinances at those events. The next step is keep the audience in mind–who uses the Agenda Center? Who is it for primarily? Secondly, distinguish the meetings to highlight the meetings that are most important for the audience. Hire a good graphic designer to figure this out. Otherwise, it’s going to cause residents and business to be even more frustrated in their efforts to learn what their elected officials are doing (have you noticed that minutes aren’t available for about six weeks, which means you have to rewatch the entire council meeting for the latest news).
The latest annual report of the Maryland Open Meetings Compliance Board (which has no budget and no staff!) notes that it received 57 complaints concerning 95 separate entities, so ensuring that government operates transparently and openly is an ongoing concern. It also summarized the most common violations by city councils, boards, and commissions (emphasis mine):
“The overall number of complaints, and of those in which we found a violation, remains small in proportion to the total number of public bodies statewide. This fiscal year saw a significant increase in the number of opinions we issued (forty-eight), which is eighteen more than the previous year and the most we have issued in a single year since at least Fiscal Year 2013. But much of this increase may be attributable to COVID-19: Many complaints alleged violations of the Act based on practices that public bodies have adopted in light of the pandemic (for example, requiring the public to observe meetings virtually or limiting how many people may attend a meeting in person19), or alleged violations related to meetings (or alleged meetings) that involved topics of discussion directly related to the pandemic (for example, masking policies and other COVID-19 protocols).
“In any event, although we issued forty-eight opinions this year, we found violations in twenty-five opinions, a little over half the total number of opinions for FY 2022. Of those opinions involving one or more violations, fewer than half of the opinions (eleven)
involved a failure to provide reasonable notice of a meeting. The most common type of violation (found in eighteen opinions) involved some deficiency related to meeting minutes, either the failure to prepare or post them timely, or the failure to provide enough details. Thirteen opinions involved the failure to fully satisfy the Act’s procedural requirements for closing a meeting to the public. Eleven involved a violation of the Act’s general openness requirements, most often because a public body failed to make clear in its meeting notice that the body would be meeting in open session before entering closed session, or because a public body misapplied an exception in GP § 3-305(b) and discussed a matter in closed session that should have been open to the public.”
Three Ways the City of Rockville Can Improve Its Public Meetings
The Open Meetings Compliance Board of the State of Maryland has rendered another opinion that the City of Rockville once again failed to meet the Open Meetings Act. They determined that Rockville’s Board of Supervisors of Elections did not provide adequate notice for its meeting of February 6, 2016 and that it did not adopt minutes in a timely manner. In their official opinion, you can detect a sigh in their voice: we discussed similar issues back in May, we have nothing to add, so please Rockville, just get your act together.
With this second opinion from the State of Maryland, it’s clear that Rockville’s Boards and Commissions have difficulties achieving basic standards for transparency and accountability. This isn’t a one-time aberration or a difference of opinions, it’s an on-going problem that isn’t being resolved on its own and it’s caught the attention of the Attorney General’s office—again.
It’s time that the Mayor and Council stop forgiving the problem because commissioners are volunteers or they believe the work isn’t important. We should treat our twenty-seven boards and commissions professionally and regard them as a serious contribution to the City, otherwise, we should thank them for their service and close them up. Secondly, the Mayor and Council should stop shifting the blame. The Boards and Commissions report directly to the Mayor and Council, so they shouldn’t find a scapegoat among staff or point fingers at each other. They’ve appointed every member of every commission so if they don’t do their jobs correctly, the Mayor and Council needs to step in. Here are three ways to start: Continue reading →
Rockville Violated Open Meeting Law, Says State Board
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 Continue reading →
Is Rockville Moving Towards or Away from Transparency?
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 Continue reading →
State Compliance Board Investigating City Meeting Records
The Open Meetings Compliance Board of the State of Maryland is investigating Rockville’s Board of Supervisors of Elections (BOSE) for failing to maintain its meeting records in accordance with state law. BOSE is a five-member body appointed by the mayor with the approval of the council and charged with the conduct of all City elections, the registration of voters and the keeping of records in connection with these functions. The state’s Open Meetings Act requires that all city boards and commissions provide either written minutes or a video recording of their meetings so that the public is aware of their actions and decisions.
Other city boards and commissions have had a spotty record over the past few years, but BOSE is exceptional. BOSE did not maintain records for nearly half of its meetings last year, with missing minutes stretching back to March 12, 2015 and no minutes available after October 21, which was the most intense and competitive period of the last Mayor and Council election.
BOSE has until mid-March to provide a written response to the Compliance Board, at which point they will render an opinion. I’m not sure how BOSE will be able to review and approve so many minutes by the deadline, but even if they do, it suggests that the Supervisors of Elections need supervision as well. If you’re concerned, please let the Mayor and Council know at email@example.com.
Months of Meeting Minutes Missing for City of Rockville
Years ago, the working of city council and major boards in the City of Rockville became more transparent with the broadcast of its meetings over cable channel 11 (Rockville 11) and online. This year, however, we’ve taken a big step back by failing to provide written minutes of meetings in a timely manner. The Mayor and Council haven’t provided minutes since March 2015 (about a dozen meetings) and the Planning Commission hasn’t provided minutes since May 2015 (about a half-dozen meetings).
That means if you want to know what’s being discussed or decided, you have to watch the meeting, which can last three to six hours. Reading the meeting minutes is a much faster way to find out what’s going on (you can scan minutes in minutes), plus it’s a better way to record decisions (no worries about interpreting inaudible words and paper survives much longer than digital recordings). You can rely on the local newspaper to report on what’s happening, but well, we really don’t have a local paper that provides that coverage reliably. Sounds like the old-fashioned way of producing written minutes of a meeting in time for the next meeting seems to look better and better.
Strangely, the Open Meetings Act for the State of Maryland (excerpted below) allows local government to skip the written minutes if they provide video (although it looks like the Planning Commission failed on both counts because a few meetings weren’t recorded nor have minutes, so you really can’t know what happened). It’s a bad idea if the goal is opening up the workings of government, especially when the requirements for minutes is minimal (list each item considered, action taken, and votes). Secondly, local governments only need to retain minutes for a year, after which they can be tossed. Really? What business or organization in America operates this way? Obviously, the Open Meeting Act needs to be desperately revised if we want to fully understand what’s happening in government (looks like a job for Senator Cheryl Kagan). In the meantime, the City of Rockville should establish better standards and practices for providing minutes of its meetings of the Mayor and Council and its boards and commissions.
Annotated Code of the State of Maryland, § 3-306
(b) Minutes required. — Continue reading →