State: BOE vi­o­lated Open Meet­ings Act

Record Observer - - Front Page - By AN­GELA PRICE bay­times@kibay­times.com

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.

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