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City broke laws by meeting in secret, state board rules

Justice SystemStephanie Rawlings-BlakeTelevision IndustryBaltimore Development CorporationBaltimore Business Journal

For the third time in six months, a state board has ruled that Baltimore's government engaged in closed-door meetings that violated Maryland's transparency law.

In an opinion released this week, the Open Meetings Compliance Board ruled that the Baltimore Development Corp., which recommends tax breaks for developers and other land deals to the mayor, broke the law by meeting in closed session on July 25 and failing to inform the public of the reasons. The ruling came in response to a complaint filed by the Baltimore Business Journal, which was barred from the meeting.

"It appears that the board members unanimously adopted a motion to close a meeting without knowing why they were doing so, let alone informing the public," the compliance board wrote in an opinion written Oct. 1, according to the newspaper. "We find that the BDC board violated the Act by meeting in closed session without first including in a written statement both the topics it intended to discuss and the need to discuss each secretly."

The head of the city's development arm said in a statement that the violation was technical in nature, and stood by the decision to close the meeting to consider the relocation of an unnamed business.

"The ruling was helpful. We will use it as a guide for future meetings," said BDC President Brenda McKenzie. "The ruling also indicated that the closing was appropriate; however there was a procedural issue."

In May, the compliance board ruled that a task force appointed last year by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to study the city's speed and red-light camera program violated Maryland law with a closed meeting in March. The task force also violated the law by not giving reasonable advance notice of meetings and by failing to take proper minutes, board members said.

The ruling came in response to a complaint filed by the anti-speed-camera group Maryland Drivers Alliance. The Baltimore Sun and other media outlets were barred from the meeting.

In July, the compliance board ruled that the city Board of Finance violated transparency laws when it approved more than $100 million in public financing for the Harbor Point development.

In response to complaints from The Baltimore Sun and TV station Fox 45, the board ruled that city officials illegally barred the public from the May 20 meeting, when it approved legislation that went to the City Council to make the financing possible. The state board said public bodies may not approve legislation in secret.

Rawlings-Blake said at the time the ruling was a reminder of the importance of "rule compliance."

"I don't believe it was the intention of the Board of Finance to violate the Open Meetings Act. I think all the boards that I work with … work to make sure their actions and practices are within the rules," she said. "The ruling reminds us that we have to be very careful and diligent to make sure that when they have to go into closed session that they're citing the appropriate rules — to make sure the T's are crossed and the I's are dotted. "

None of the actions done in private need to be redone in public.

luke.broadwater@baltsun.com

twitter.com/lukebroadwater

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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Justice SystemStephanie Rawlings-BlakeTelevision IndustryBaltimore Development CorporationBaltimore Business Journal
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