By Alison Knezevich, The Baltimore Sun
7:23 AM EDT, May 8, 2013
A Pikesville man has filed an Open Meetings Act violation complaint against the Baltimore County Council, alleging that citizens didn't get proper notice of a meeting where they could have testified about the county's new stormwater fee.
The council voted 5-2 on April 15 to approve the fee, which they discussed at a work session the week before. County officials say they properly advertised that work session, where the council also discussed other bills.
In his complaint to the state's Open Meetings Compliance Board, Ralph Jaffe said four people testified about the fee at the work session — a fact that he said indicates people didn't know about the meeting.
"The fact that only four citizens from the entire Baltimore County population were in attendance clearly indicates to me that the public was not properly informed with regard to this matter," he wrote in the complaint, filed late last month.
County Attorney Mike Field said Monday that the county advertised three times in the Jeffersonian newspaper about the work session — on March 21, 28 and April 4. It also posted information on its website beginning March 19, he said.
"The council didn't violate the Open Meetings Act," Field said.
In a letter last week, the state's compliance board asked Field to send copies of the public notice for the meeting to the state. The board received Field's response Monday and will have 30 days to issue a written opinion, said David Paulson, a spokesman for the attorney general's office, which staffs the board.
Jaffe also complained that some residents' testimony on the bill came after the legislation was approved. The County Council holds a public-comment period after it adjourns meetings, so council members sometimes receive testimony after they already have voted on a bill.
"In my opinion, this is not exactly what I would call a classic example of participatory democracy," Jaffe wrote.
Jaffe, who used to teach in county schools and has run for office, had filed an earlier complaint saying the council acted unethically in not holding a public hearing specifically to address the stormwater fee. The state board dismissed that complaint, saying that the Open Meetings Act does not require governmental bodies to receive public comment.
Councilwoman Vicki Almond, a Reisterstown Democrat, had called for the council to delay its vote on the bill because she felt the public didn't get enough chance to comment. She later voted to approve the fee, saying she didn't like the legislation but felt council amendments had improved it.
Last year, Jaffe filed open-meetings complaints against the boards of regents for the University System of Maryland and for Morgan State University. In one case, he said the University System of Maryland board broke the law when members voted in a closed meeting on the University of Maryland's move to the Big Ten conference. In the other, he said the Morgan State board violated the act when it voted in a closed meeting not to renew President David J. Wilson's contract.
In both instances, the state panel ruled that the boards had violated the Open Meetings Act.
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