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City says task force didn't violate open meetings law

A lawyer for Baltimore City says a task force appointed by the mayor to study the city's speed camera program did not hold an illegal closed-door meeting during a March visit to a contractor's headquarters.

But a prominent member of the task force called the city's version of events "not true."

Assistant City Solicitor Hilary Ruley told state officials this week that a presentation to the task force was stopped once members realized the public had been barred from attending by Brekford Corp., the city's new camera vendor. The company hosted the meeting at its Anne Arundel County offices.

But Ragina Averella, one of five task force members present for the March 20 visit, said no one asked Brekford officials to halt their presentation, even though it was clear that journalists had been kept out. The session, roughly an hour long, laid out Brekford's plans for the city's troubled camera system.

"The presentation went on," Averella, public and government affairs manager at AAA Mid-Atlantic, said Thursday. "If they're implying that the meeting was immediately, abruptly ended because the media wasn't allowed, that's not accurate. It's just not."

Averella said that when she arrived at Brekford, she expressed concern about the media ban to fellow members and city transportation officials.

"I asked as soon as I got in the room: 'Why is the media not allowed in?' " she said. City officials said it was Brekford's decision, she said, and did not move to stop the meeting.

"I'm quite confident we saw the end of the presentation," Averella said.

Ruley did not respond to emailed questions Thursday. She sent a letter, dated Tuesday, to the state's Open Meetings Compliance Board, outlining the city's account in response to a citizen complaint.

The eight-person task force is subject to the Open Meetings Act, Ruley said in her letter to the state, because it was created by the mayor and has more than two members. The law applies when five or more of its members — a quorum — meet, she added.

Task force chairperson Barbara Zektick, the Transportation Department's lobbyist, referred questions to agency spokeswoman Adrienne Barnes.

In an email, Barnes did not address Averella's comments, but said "it was not the Department's decision to prevent the media from touring the facility and when it became clear that there may be an issue with regard to the Open Meetings Act, the presentation was concluded."

Ryan O'Doherty, a spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, did not respond to a request for comment.

The Baltimore Sun recorded video outside the Brekford offices showing some task force members and city officials leaving about an hour after they had gone inside. As she stepped outside, Barnes made no mention to two waiting reporters that the presentation had been halted prematurely.

A second agency official, Kathy Chopper, declined to say what happened inside "because there was reasons why they [Brekford] did not want you in there."

Asked what the reasons were, she said, "I don't know, but I'm not going to sit here and tell you everything we saw inside."

Chopper and Barnes then left without answering further questions. A Brekford official told reporters they could not go inside because it was a "secure facility."

The open meetings complaint was filed April 1 by three state residents who are members of the Maryland Drivers Alliance, a group opposed to speed cameras.

In her letter, Ruley rejected other claims in the complaint, including that the half-dozen task force meetings have not been publicly advertised. She said notice is published on the Department of Transportation website, and that this is "sufficient public notice."

Neither she nor Barnes would say where on the website those meetings are advertised.

Averella said she was unaware of Ruley's letter until she was contacted Thursday by a reporter. She said Ruley never asked her about the Brekford event.

"If they had contacted task force members, perhaps there would have been a more accurate depiction of what actually occurred," she said.

City Solicitor George Nilson, Ruley's supervisor, said he saw no reason Averella's input should have been sought.

"If somebody gets the facts from a member of a group, there is nothing that says they must, should or need to canvass every member of the group to see if anybody has a different recollection of the facts," he said.

The compliance board, whose three members are appointed by the governor, has 30 days to issue a decision. The maximum penalty for violating the law is a $100 civil fine.

scalvert@baltsun.com

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