State board finds speed camera task force violated open-meetings act

A task force appointed last year by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to study the city's speed and red-light camera program violated Maryland law when it met behind closed doors in March, the state Open Meetings Compliance Board ruled this week.

The task force also violated the open-meetings law by not giving reasonable advance notice of meetings and by failing to take proper minutes, the board said in the ruling published Monday.

While the decision carries no penalty, a judge could assess a $100 fine on members who "willfully" participated in the meeting.

One of the three state residents who filed the complaint said that's not the goal.

"What we really want is for the task force to comply with the law," said Louis Wilen, a member of the anti-speed camera group Maryland Drivers Alliance. "The speed camera program would be trusted a lot more if there weren't so much secrecy."

The city Department of Transportation, which staffs the eight-member task force, "will abide by the board's findings," agency spokeswoman Adrienne Barnes said.

Much of the complaint centered on a March 20 meeting that occurred partly at the Anne Arundel County headquarters of the city's new camera vendor, Brekford Corp.

A Brekford official barred reporters from entering, saying it was a "secure" facility. Five members of the task force — a quorum — then heard a presentation from Brekford executives on plans for improving Baltimore's troubled camera program.

A city lawyer told the compliance board that the Brekford presentation ended once it became clear that members of the public had been barred. The lawyer said fewer than five task force members later toured company facilities.

But one task force member, Ragina Averella of AAA Mid-Atlantic, disputed the city's account, saying that the Brekford presentation continued to its conclusion even after it was clear access had been limited.

"Either way," the board found, "the circumstances were problematic: when a public body is performing a function subject to the Act, excluding the public from the discussion violates the Act, and avoiding the Act by reducing the members present to below a quorum is hardly ideal."

The board criticized the meeting minutes: "The 'minutes' of the November and January meetings contain only the agenda and the words 'No actions were taken.' The others add a column of 'notes,' ranging in length from three lines to 21 lines of phrases; they appear, in fact, to be someone's notes."

In faulting the task force for not properly advertising meetings, the board detailed shortcomings of the March 20 event, saying the board didn't get "any form of written notice for that meeting."

Board members Elizabeth L. Nilson and Courtney J. McKeldin signed the opinion.

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