The Maryland State Open Meetings Compliance Board is charged with determining whether the State Open Meetings Act is held in compliance by local and state government officials.
The first week of February, the board offered an important decision which stated the Carroll Board of County Commissioners violated the letter and spirit of the Open Meetings Act when members decided to hold a meeting — their anti-PlanMaryland forum on Oct. 31, 2011, at the Pikesville Hilton — and attend as a quorum of the elected body, excluding many citizens by charging a $25 admittance fee.
The commissioners are due whatever political philosophy they choose, but when they intentionally chose to hold a forum at an expensive location outside the county, charge some individuals a fee to attend and then use public funds to front the operation, I became incensed enough to file a complaint with the compliance board.
The meeting could have been held at no or little cost at the Carroll Community College, which is accessible to Carroll citizens — who certainly would have not expected a free luncheon be served them.
Public documents relating to the meeting reveal that at least $9,000 was spent — in my opinion to make a meeting into a political event — and that donations from the public to underwrite the cost fall thousands of dollars short, leaving the taxpayers of Carroll holding the bag.
The shame of it all is that, according to documents, the commissioners charged some — but not all — citizens to attend. One is left to wonder how they determined which residents attended and ate lunch for free and why 20 of the 149 who attended had to pay admittance.
The cost of the forum indicated by the public documents is very likely not the end of its expenses, as some speaker fees and airfares are not accounted for.
The commissioners' decisions regarding this meeting and even their defense of it shows a flawed basic philosophy by this board toward transparent government.
They have written to the compliance indicating they believe a meeting does not actually take place if there is no vote taken.
That is just plain wrongheaded. Citizens have every right to attend and at least listen at meetings of a quorum of their elected officials, whether a vote is taken or not. The deliberative process on issues such as the airport expansion and waste-to-energy plant are every bit as important for citizens to hear as it is for the commissioners. Otherwise, they may just as well meet with the lobbyist for a project and exclude citizens who could be deeply impacted by the final vote.
Also, as the compliance board noted in its opinion, the fact that meetings are televised or re-broadcast at a later time does not make for open government.
I sincerely hope the commissioners will take this decision by the open meetings board to heart, and use it re-assess how they go about governing our county. I believe they can begin by doing the following:
1. Refunding the $25 admittance fee to the select few they chose to charge to attend their meeting.
2. Commissioners Richard Rothschild, Robin Frazier, Doug Howard and Dave Roush (Commissioner Haven Shoemaker did not attend) should personally reimburse the county treasury for the cost of the forum, including speaker fees, airfares, room rentals, luncheon, additional food bought for participants, miscellaneous fees charged by the speakers (and the $49.50 Frazier charged the county for mileage reimbursements to attend the forum and a pre-forum meeting). Those expenses should include an accounting for the hours spent by public affairs consultant Jim Simpson and county staff on inaccessible, closed, illegal meeting.
3. Issuing an apology to the citizens of Carroll County for holding this closed meeting, literally at their expense.
The author is the former sustainabilty coordinator for Carroll County.