On Wednesday, Maryland’s highest court put an end to a legal contest between City of Taneytown officials and the wife of a former city councilman that began in 2016.
The Maryland Court of Appeals upheld lower court decisions ruling in favor of Taneytown in a lawsuit filed by Robin Frazier, a former Carroll County commissioner and the wife of former city Councilman Donald Frazier. She had filed suit against then-Taneytown Mayor Jim McCarron and other city officials on Aug. 8, 2016, arguing the city violated the Maryland Open Meetings Act by failing to hold an open meeting before holding a closed meeting June 22, 2016.
A Circuit Court judge ruled in the city’s favor in 2017, and the Court of Special Appeals upheld that decision in late 2018 — both courts acknowledged the city violated open meetings regulations, but the circuit court ruled these violations were not willful and were technical and harmless, a ruling the Court of Special Appeals affirmed.
The Court of Appeals disagreed with some of the technical aspects of the lower courts’ reasoning, but upheld their overall judgement and ruling for Taneytown over Frazier.
The city, Mayor Bradley Wantz said in an interview, is very pleased with the outcome of the case.
“We’re not surprised. We knew from the very beginning that while we acknowledged some of the technical violations that took place, it was very clear from testimony and evidence that it was not a willful violation,” he said. “I think we can finally put a lid on this and just move forward.”
The original incident at the center of the lawsuit was the June 2016, closed meeting that the Taneytown mayor and council held to discuss the threat of litigation by then-Councilman Donald Frazier. Elected in 2015, his term on the council had been marked by conflicts with city staff and other elected officials, three official censures, a renting code violation and changes to the city code to allow for his removal from office under certain circumstances — he left office in May after an unsuccessful run for mayor.
Robin Frazier attempted to attend the open meeting that she realized was required by the Maryland Open Meetings Act — the mayor and council were required to hold the open meeting and then vote to go into a closed session – but was turned away. This formed the basis of her lawsuit, along with the town failing to post notice of the open meeting and the meeting minutes mistakenly not listing then-Mayor McCarron as being in attendance.
In 2017, the circuit court ruled that the city had violated the open meetings law by not giving proper notice of the open meeting or listing the mayor as an attendee of the closed meeting, but that the town had held the required open meeting and that none of the violations were willful. The judge told Frazier that she put on a good case but that he was waiting for her to show a “smoking gun” and she never did.
In late 2018, the Court of Special Appeals found the Circuit Court to be in error in ruling that the town had held the required open meeting, but upheld the Circuit Court’s ruling in favor of Taneytown, with the judge writing in an opinion that “we find the court’s error was harmless and non-prejudicial” because the mistake was unintentional.
But on Wednesday the Court of Appeals disagreed that the technical errors were in fact harmless.
“Violations of those mandates are not ‘technical’ in nature; nor are they ever harmless,” the court wrote in the decision. “A violation may not cause specific demonstrable injury to individual members of the public, but it does necessarily clash with and detract from the public policy that the Legislature declared ... ‘is essential to the maintenance of a democratic society.’ "
At the same time, the court wrote, “that does not mean that an axe must fall upon every, or any particular, violation.” Noting that the law allows the courts’ discretion in assessing any penalties for a public body that violates the open meeting act — penalties such as declaring actions of that public body void or assessing civil penalties — the Court of Appeals upheld the circuit court’s decision not to impose any such penalties.
That the court could have done so is not lost on Wantz.
“It’s a very good thing for municipalities in the state of Maryland that they are not going to be unnecessary persecution when they are simply trying to conduct city business,” he said. “The Open Meetings Act can sometimes be very difficult to navigate, but it’s our duty to make sure we are doing it correctly. That’s why this past Monday we had the first closed meeting under my administration and we made sure that every 'T' was crossed, every 'I' was dotted, that we’re doing this 100 percent correct.”
The court also noted that in her appeal, Frazier had asked the court to reimburse her for legal costs and impose civil penalties on Taneytown, to unseal minutes of the closed meeting in 2016, and to declare actions of the Mayor and Council at that meeting void, as well as to post the court’s directive ordering this on the City of Taneytown website.
But the members of the court wrote in their opinion that the 2016 meeting led to no actions that could be voided, that Frazier presented no evidence of legal costs to justify a monetary award, and that the minutes of the closed meeting had been made public a month and a half after the meeting.