Harford school board takes 'corrective action' after violating open meetings law

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The Harford County Board of Education has agreed to take steps to prevent violations of open meetings laws after the state’s Open Meetings Compliance Board earlier this year found the board committed two violations in 2017.

“We’ve taken corrective action,” school board President Joseph Voskuhl said Wednesday night.

He stressed that the violations were related to matters of procedure for entering into closed session, not because the board had been accused of hiding information from the public.

The board has agreed it will ensure counsel is present at all meetings to provide guidance on when it can and cannot close the session to the public, and that its closed meeting statements include information that a vote had been taken to close the meeting, a citation of the relevant state statute and the specific topic of discussion and reason why the meeting must be closed to discuss that topic, according to documents in the case.

Citing statute and specific reason why a meeting should be closed are in accordance with a model closed meeting statement post on the Maryland Attorney General’s Office website.

The two corrective actions were included in the state compliance board’s June 1 opinion, which Voskuhl read during the school board’s last meeting in June.

“We took care of it,” he said, referring to the corrective measures.

He read the compliance board’s opinion toward the end of a lengthy school board meeting on June 11 that lasted into the early morning hours of June 12 as the board deliberated and heard multiple public comments on its fiscal 2019 budget. Board members made no comment.

The open meetings board’s opinion is based on a March 20 complaint filed by Craig O’Donnell, a staffer for the Dover Post newspaper in Delaware.

O’Donnell is a former government reporter for the Kent County News in Maryland. The Delaware resident spent close to 11 years with the Kent County paper, and he and his colleagues watched local governing bodies closely for potential violations of the Maryland Open Meetings Act.

“We got some very useful opinions from the Compliance Board even when we didn’t ‘win.’” he wrote in an email Thursday.

O’Donnell reviews closed meeting statements and minutes posted online by local school boards around Maryland, which he calls a “part-time public service project,” which he started around the spring of 2017.

“Education is a huge part of every county’s budget,” he wrote. “It’s not necessarily that the BOEs [boards of education] were trying to be slick or secretive. It’s that the public should get the maximum amount of information about decisions as they’re made.”

Statements read by Harford school board leaders before going into 11 closed sessions between June 12, 2017 and Jan. 22, 2018 formed the basis of O’Donnell’s complaint.

He alleged that none of the 11 statements, which declare to the public that the board is entering closed session and why, included a reason for closing the meeting along with the topic of the meeting. Four of those statements did not include a topic as well, and the rest were “vaguely worded.”

The closed meetings O’Donnell cited covered board discussions about negotiations with their employee bargaining units, or unions, discussions with school system general counsel Patrick Spicer, and updates on litigation involving either the Harford board or the Prince George’s County board.

He took issue with the short descriptions included in the closed meeting statements, such as a June 26, 2017: “Update regarding pending litigation involving the Board” or one in a Jan. 10, 2018: “Status of negotiations with certain unions.” He said the statements should provide more information so the reasons for closing are clear to the public and permitted under state law.

Local and state government bodies are required, under the Maryland Open Meetings Act, to hold meetings open to the public. State law includes 14 “exceptions” that can be cited before going into closed session, such as personnel matters, the acquisition of real property for public use, meeting with counsel, consulting with staff or other relevant individuals about “pending or potential litigation,” discussions on security matters and conducting collective bargaining negotiations.

One closed session on Dec. 18, 2017, involved discussions with staff about negotiations with bus contractors. Bus contractors, who operate private businesses, are not among the HCPS bargaining units, or employee unions.

O’Donnell noted in his complaint that negotiations with bus contractors would not be covered under the statutory exception for closing a meeting regarding collective bargaining matters.

O’Donnell’s four-page complaint is posted on the Harford County Public Schools website, along with responses by Patrick Spicer, general counsel for the school system, and the state compliance board’s opinion.

Spicer acknowledged the oversight regarding negotiations with bus contractors, noting he was not present that day. The school board believes that, had he been there, Spicer would have advised “such discussion was not the proper subject of a closed meeting,” he stated.

Spicer also stated that either he or Gregory Szoka, the school board counsel, will attend each board meeting. He defended the wording of closed meeting statements, in order to protect confidentiality and the board’s position in union negotiations or litigation.

He, along with Szoka and Voskuhl, will “closely analyze” confidentiality needs in future closed meeting statements and “will give substantial and due consideration to providing more description of a Closed Session topic,” Spicer wrote.

The state compliance board upheld O’Donnell’s allegation on the school bus contractors.

It did not, however, address O’Donnell’s other allegations, which it considered “meritless.”

“Instead, we refer the complainant to earlier opinions in which he asserted, and we addressed, analogous allegations about other public bodies,” the board stated.

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