Let’s review: Md. Open Meetings Act
A state board recently found the Queen Anne’s County Board of Education and the Talbot County Council violated Maryland’s open meetings law.
Of the two, the violations committed by the Queen Anne’s County school board were more egregious, with the school board failing to comply with some of the most basic aspects of the Maryland Open Meetings Act.
In both cases, the violations occurred in connection with controversial topics: the removal of the “Talbot Boys” statue and the decision not to renew the contract of Queen Anne’s County School Superintendent Carol Williamson.
The Open Meetings Compliance Board considers complaints alleging violations of the open meetings law and issues advisory opinions and advice.
The board issued an opinion in response to complaints filed by The Bay Times, David Brown and Bryan Holocker, finding the Queen Anne’s school board in violation for meetings held Jan. 20, Feb. 9 and Feb. 10.
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 minutes of the next open meeting and failed to identify those who attended the closed sessions.
In each instance, the compliance board found the school board violated the Open Meetings Act.
The Feb. 9 meeting was a closed session at which a majority of the school board voted not to renew Carol Williamson’s contract as school superintendent.
The Bay Times specifically questioned how the closings were handled during the Jan. 20 and Feb. 9 meetings.
The compliance board noted, as it has in past opinions, that every meeting must start off in open session.
The public body must then publicly vote to go into closed session. The presiding officer must prepare a written statement outlining the basis for closing the meeting, including the statutory authority, the topics to be discussed and the reason for closing.
In previous opinions, the compliance board also has repeatedly explained that the topics to be discussed cannot simply repeat the statutory authority for closing. In other words, if a board is closing to discuss personnel matters, the topic cannot be “personnel matters,” but should provide additional information, such as “meeting to discuss renewal of superintendent’s contract.” The Talbot County Council’s violation was a little more complicated. The county had argued that deciding whether to remove the “Talbot Boys” statue was an administrative function not covered by the Open Meetings Act. The board disagreed. Since there was no existing policy or law to administer, the county council should have decided the removal of the “Talbot Boys” in public session, the board said.
Open meetings are important. They increase the public’s faith in government, ensure accountability and enhance the public’s ability to participate effectively in our democracy.