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'Technical challenges’: Maryland officials struggle to comply with open meetings law amid coronavirus restrictions

As the Maryland State Board of Education began its much-anticipated March meeting, it was clear there was a problem: People couldn’t hear.

Teachers and parents were tuning in from across the state, eager to glean information about school closures amid the state’s sweeping measures to contain the coronavirus. But the audio stream was patchy for some, unworkable for others.

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As complaints poured in, board members called a halt to the meeting. They consulted an attorney, who said they couldn’t hold the meeting if it wasn’t public. The company providing the livestream added bandwidth, and the meeting resumed. About 20 minutes later, the system crashed again.

David Steiner, a board member from Baltimore, said the board was told the disruption last week was caused by the “unexpectedly large volume" of people joining in, which overwhelmed the system. It was frustrating, he said, but something the board is committed to fixing.

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“We are all adjusting to the situation, and systems built for normal times are put under stress,” Steiner said. “They’ve been working with the IT folks to try to make sure this doesn’t happen again, because our first responsibility in a public meeting is that it be public, to ensure that everyone can hear and follow along."

“As I said to the treasurer a little earlier, we are in the future now.”


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Across Maryland, government bodies large and small are contending with similar issues. In a state where the law mandates public access to most government meetings, at a time when the governor has banned gatherings of more than 10 people to halt the viral threat, school boards and spending panels and city councils that must go on governing are increasingly turning to technology to provide access through virtual links and livestreams.

They are doing so with varying degrees of success, as even bodies that have streamed their meetings for years struggle with the greater challenge of board members themselves working remotely and how to allow for public input, particularly in cases when there is no actual face-to-face meeting.

The Maryland Board of Public Works, which controls state spending, met last week via a video hookup — the first time such a meeting was conducted “in a virtual environment,” said Republican Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford, who chaired the meeting for Gov. Larry Hogan as Hogan focused on the virus response.

“As I said to the treasurer a little earlier, we are in the future now,” Rutherford said.

At the meeting’s end, Democratic Comptroller Peter Franchot said: “I don’t mean to sound surprised, but I’m stunned that it actually worked.”

The Board of Regents for the University System of Maryland, which oversees the state’s public universities, didn’t have the same success when it met March 19 by teleconference to announce its universities and colleges would be closed for the rest of the semester.

More than 100 people joined the call, causing a din of background noise. Everyone was repeatedly asked to mute their devices, but it didn’t work, to the point where it was difficult to hear what Chancellor Jay Perman was saying. After repeated requests for people to mute their phones, the call was ended and everyone was asked to dial back in. But the background chatter continued.

Mike Lurie, a spokesman for the board, said it has “worked hard to meet the logistical challenges associated with maintaining open communication while, at the same time, facilitating rapid decision-making” in response to the pandemic, including by having call-in teleconferences.

“This is obviously a fast-moving and fluid situation and many organizations and businesses are dealing with technical challenges involved in a telework environment,” Lurie said. “The USM is not immune to these challenges and has used them to improve its public outreach and transparency.”

Joanne Antoine, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, said the issue has been cropping up more and more in recent days, making it more important to highlight it and get it fixed.

She said her group, which conducted internal meetings on the Zoom video conferencing app, understands the pandemic and the measures to stop it have “created challenges that a lot of these bodies just were not ready for,” but that is not an excuse for cutting the public out of government actions.

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“The public confidence in the government is crucial right now, and decisions being made without the public being able to observe and participate really just isn’t the best decision,” Antoine said.

She said her group recommends government bodies start “limiting the work that’s being conducted to just emergency or priority government action," provide the public clear information about how to virtually participate in meetings, and immediately halt any proceedings if audio or video streams cut out or become otherwise unreliable.

Democratic Attorney General Brian Frosh’s office, which agencies have turned to for guidance, has supported teleconferences and other technologies for maintaining as much access as possible to any public meetings.

“The overriding principle is that when a public body encounters circumstances that challenge its ability to admit the public to an open meeting in the usual location, the public body must provide the public with the best possible opportunity to observe the conduct of public business, given those circumstances,” Frosh’s guidance said.

Michael Greenberger, director of the Center for Health and Homeland Security at the University of Maryland School of Law and an expert on executive powers during emergencies, said under state law, Hogan’s orders pursuant to his emergency declaration could take precedence over the open meetings law, particularly if the law was determined to be undermining the emergency orders.

But for now, that’s a moot point, because government bodies across the state seem to be showing “a good faith effort” to comport with both the law and Hogan’s orders, he said. “Everybody is trying to do their best.”

Before the Maryland General Assembly ended its session early earlier this month, it rushed to pass more than 650 bills in an unusual environment at the State House. To limit the spread of the disease, Senate President Bill Ferguson and House of Delegates Speaker Adrienne A. Jones, both Democrats, barred all but lawmakers, key staffers and credentialed media.

Committees voted on key legislation in rooms full of empty chairs. The lobbyists, advocates and members of the public who typically attend sessions of the House and Senate were forced to watch or listen online.

But several times, audio and visual feeds of the chambers’ proceedings cut out. Lawmakers would wave their arms or hold up computer screens showing the streams weren’t functioning. The Senate’s audio stream cut out so frequently that Ferguson began streaming the chamber on Facebook Live.

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In Baltimore, City Council President Brandon Scott oversaw the first virtual Board of Estimates meeting Wednesday. Top city officials appeared via video conference from various locations across City Hall to approve a lengthy agenda

But with no way to allow for public debate, and no mechanism to hear a protest from the ACLU of Maryland, the board deferred by a week a scheduled vote on a controversial agreement to fly three aerial surveillance planes above Baltimore.

“Something of that significance has to have public discussion, which we know takes on a different meaning" during the pandemic, Scott said.

An array of other city meetings have been canceled — including a pesticide control hearing, a monthly police oversight meeting, a discussion on Baltimore’s zero waste efforts and more than two dozen other council hearings scheduled for the latter half of March.

Scott said his office is working as fast as it can to find new, 21st-century solutions to the needs of the community and of city government at a time when physical gatherings are verboten.

“We want to make sure that the citizens of Baltimore, the average citizens, can have the access that they need,” he said. “I will not have things that the public cannot be involved in."

In some ways, the crisis is forcing the city to do what it always should have been doing, he said: meeting people “where they are.”

Baltimore Sun reporters Jeff Barker, Luke Broadwater and Talia Richman contributed to this article.

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