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State finds no violation in Carroll commissioners' closed meeting

But compliance board says session had 'appearance of secrecy'

By Jim Joyner, Carroll Eagle, jjoyner@tribune.com

6:01 PM EDT, July 6, 2012

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The Maryland Open Meetings Compliance Board said on July 5 that it could find no violation in a closed meeting conducted by the Board of County Commissioners in January.

But it nevertheless said the board's announcement of the meeting had been "deficient" and led to an "appearance of secrecy."

The meeting in question was held on Jan. 13, 2012, and was conducted at the Bear Branch Nature Center, according to the complaint filed by Neil Ridgely, of Finksburg, a former county employee who worked in the planning department under the previous commissioner board.

In his complaint, Ridgely said that although the board's agenda noted the closed meeting would take place, it never met in open session to vote for a closed meeting — and the notice didn't reveal where the meeting would take place.

County officials said they used the session to discuss issues that don't fall under open meetings guidelines because they are "administrative matters" — including scheduling issues, procedures for issuing press releases and communications matters.

They also said they had gotten advice from the county attorney that the topics would be suitable for a closed meeting.

The commissioners were "pleased" with the July 5 opinion, and Board President Doug Howard said in a statement that, "The simple fact is that this board of commissioners respects and practices open government. We set policy as a result of open debate, public votes and public disclosure.

"I am very proud of the open, responsive and principled approach this board takes to governing," he said.

But Ridgely said the ruling was a mixed bag, noting that the compliance board chastised the commissioners.

"I don't think this one is a clear victory for me or for the commissioners," he said.

The State Open Meetings Act governs whether certain meetings of public bodies should be open or can be closed. Elected bodies can have some closed meetings but they often pertain to personnel issues, land acquisition or legal matters.

If anyone thinks a meeting has violated the act, they can file a complaint. There's no penalty, but the compliance board issues an opinion nevertheless.

Since no staff members were at the meeting, the compliance board said it couldn't determine if some of the subjects, including "performance and operations of several appointed directors of departments," might have crossed the line into areas that should have been open.

"We cannot ascertain whether ... the commissioners performed functions subject to the (Open Meeting Act's) mandate that the business of the public be conducted in public," the compliance board wrote. "We note the appearance of secrecy given by the commissioners' decision to meet in an undisclosed location (and) without staff ..."

"That appearance might have been avoided," the board wrote.

The compliance board also said the notice was deficient because it didn't tell the public if the commissioners had ever voted to hold a closed meeting — and thus give citizens a chance to object.

In the county's statement, Commissioner Haven Shoemaker said he was "very pleased that the compliance board found in our favor."

But he took some issue with the tenor of the opinion, saying he was "disappointed that the compliance board tried to take a clearly straightforward meeting and insinuate conduct that, if it had occurred, would have violated the act."

For his part, Ridgely said the compliance board's opinion indicates that it "really wrangled with this one."

"I don't know if the (compliance) board had all information they needed to really determine what was discussed," he said. "Obviously they had a difficult time getting a clear decision."

The complaint is the latest of several that Ridgely has filed against the current Board of County Commissioners.

"Ideally," he said, "I'd like to see things done as openly as possible."