State: BOE violated Open Meetings Act
CENTREVILLE — In an opinion issued May 9, the Open Meetings Compliance Board found the Queen Anne’s County Board of Education violated the Open Meetings Act in a variety of instances in meetings held on Jan. 20, Feb. 9 and Feb. 10.
The compliance board consolidated separate complaints filed by The Bay Times, David Brown and Bryan Holocker.
The complaints alleged the school board failed to give proper notice for the Feb. 9 meeting, did not close the meeting in a public vote, did not provide the required information before closing the meeting, did not provide required information about three
closed seasons in the the minutes of next open meeting and failed to identify the attendees of the closed sessions.
In each instance, the compliance board found the school board violated the Open Meetings Act.
The announcement of the Feb. 9 meeting did not appear on the 2015-2016 Board Meeting Schedule on the board of education website; nor did it appear on the board documents list. It did appear on the Upcoming Events section on a cached page on the website and on an events calendar emailed to local media outlets, but neither of those provided sufficient information, the compliance board said.
“... we conclude that the school board did not provide reasonable advance notice when it posted the fact of a ‘Closed Session Board meeting’ without specifying the meeting location and without inviting the public to observe the requisite open-session vote,” the board wrote.
The compliance board also advised public bodies that post temporary notices online should keep a record of the dates on which the notices are posted.
In its complaint, The Bay Times wrote, “We question the school board’s continued practice of announcing closed meetings. The Queen Anne’s County Board of Education routinely schedules ‘closed sessions’ for 90 minutes prior to regular open meetings. The Act’s goals are 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. Routinely planning closed sessions would seem at odds with these goals.”
It specifically questioned how the closings were handled during the Jan. 20 and Feb. 9 meetings.
On the video of the Jan. 20 meeting, School Board President Jennifer George announces the board will go into closed session and asks for a motion and vote. No reason is cited. The reasons were added after the fact, The Bay Times alleged.
The minutes from the Jan. 20 meeting state the board decided to continue the discussion in a closed session on Feb. 9.
The compliance board wrote, “It is hard to describe a session as ‘open’ if the public was not invited to observe the vote.”
The posting of the Feb. 9 meeting as “closed” was a violation as well as the notice provisions, the compliance board said.
The Jan. 20 vote to meet in closed session Feb. 9 was also a violation because it did not meet the criteria set forth in the Open Meetings Act. “... it, too, was not held publicly, and, in any event, the vote must be held at the open session that is about to be closed and may not be held in advance,” the board wrote.
A meeting may not be closed until the presiding officer has prepared a written statement of the basis for closing a meeting, which must contain the statutory authority for the closed session, the topics to be discussed and the reason for closing, the compliance board said.
The school board provided typed statements for the closed sessions, but apparently misunderstood what was required, the compliance board said. In each instance, the school board listed the reason for closing as “No further business to discus.”
“Closing statements are to convey the public body’s reason for excluding the public, not its reason for its later adjournment of the closed session,” the compliance board wrote.
The board also noted the typed statements contained entries reflecting the time when the closed sessions ended, “and it thus is not apparent from the statements that any of the information was entered before the meeting was closed.”
The school board admitted it did not summarize the Feb. 9 meeting in the minutes of the Feb. 10 open meeting and acknowledged it violated that part of the Act, the compliance board said.
Finally, the school board failed to list the persons present during the closed sessions. The school board argued vote totals made it apparent all school board members were present.
“However, minutes that reflect the presence of all the school board members do not tell the public who else attended (or who did not attend), and so the ‘persons present’ must be listed expressly,” the compliance board wrote.
The compliance board said it has provided advice to the school board on how to comply in the future with the provisions it violated.