The Maryland Court of Special Appeals in December upheld the lower court's ruling that the City of Taneytown did not act willfully in failing to comply fully with the Maryland Open Meetings Act at a closed meeting in 2016.
Robin Frazier, a former Carroll County commissioner and the wife of Taneytown Councilman Donald Frazier, sued the city on Aug. 8, 2016, claiming it violated the act when it failed to hold an open meeting before its closed meeting June 22, 2016.
After a Circuit Court hearing in 2017, Judge Lawrence Daniels found that the city fell short of protocol established in the open meetings law, but that it did not do so intentionally. The court ruled in favor of Taneytown.
Frazier appealed the case to the Court of Special Appeals — Maryland's second-highest bench.
In an unreported Dec. 17 opinion, Judge Melanie Shaw Geter determined that the lower court did not err in ruling that Taneytown’s “technical violations of the Open Meetings Act were not willful” and deciding not to impose a penalty.
Neither Robin Frazier nor Donald Frazier could be reached for comment as of noon Dec. 31.
“It was a decision that we expected,” Taneytown Mayor James McCarron told the Times. “I would have been very disappointed if the court had found otherwise. It was obvious from the first trial that, although we made a mistake or two, nothing was intentional and we did everything we could to comply with the law. The courts agreed with us the first time, they agreed with us the second time. … It was the right judgment.”
In her petition to the special appeals court, Robin Frazier claimed that the lower court was mistaken in determining that Taneytown held an open meeting before its closed meeting in June 2016.
The higher court determined that the Circuit Court was wrong. There was no open meeting before the closed session.
The mayor and council members — excluding Donald Frazier — maintain that they didn’t do anything wrong intentionally: There was no malicious intent.
“The city has made every effort possible to make sure we were in compliance with open meetings [law],” Councilman Bradley Wantz told the Times. “It’s an extremely tricky system to go through. There are so many new rules and exceptions and a lot of it’s very subjective.”
Wantz said the city has gotten most of the elected officials — including Wantz and McCarron — certified in open meetings law, and defers to the city attorney, Jay Gullo, to make sure it conducts business properly.
It’s not surprising that the trial court’s decision was upheld, Wantz added: “I don’t believe we did anything wrong. A few minor technical issues, but those aren’t things that justify, first off, the relief that Ms. Frazier was looking for and definitely not something the city should be penalized for.”
The higher court, agreeing with the City’s defense, said that because Frazier did not bring up the issue of being reimbursed for legal costs at the 2017 trial the matter was not appropriate for special appeals court to review.
“The fundamental principle behind an award of attorney’s fees presumes the existence of an attorney-client relationship,” the special appeals judge wrote. “Here, [Frazier] is not entitled to attorney’s fees as she did not employ an attorney and she has not identified [in the appeal] or in the previous proceeding the nature of any other type of litigation expenses.”
Though it’s not clear what legal costs Frazier assumed, the city did have to spend taxpayer dollars to defend itself.
Councilman Joe Vigliotti said in an email to the Times he was relieved the special appeals court affirmed the lower court’s decision.