More than 60 percent of the state's local governments have not complied with a 2013 state law requiring training in Maryland's Open Meetings Act.
Monica Johnson, chairwoman of the state's Open Meetings Compliance Board, said the numbers reveal there is "lots of room for improvement."
"I really think that folks want to do the right thing to the extent they know what it is and how to do it," she said. "Part of the key is getting the message out that this is the law of the land. Sometimes it takes time."
State legislators passed a law in 2013 requiring all government boards, commissions, task forces or other bodies that fall under the requirements of the Open Meetings Act to designate a person to take a training class. Under the law, governments were required to notify the state attorney general's office of the person identified for training. Governments had six months from the effective date of the law, Oct 1, 2013, to comply.
According to data received by the Carroll County Times from the state attorney general's office, two counties, Allegany and Cecil, did not submit any names for any boards or commissions. Seven other counties sent names for some boards and commissions, but not for the county government itself. Among the state's 157 municipal governments, only 59 sent names of designees to the state attorney general's office.
In Carroll, the Carroll County Public Library, Board of License Commissioners, Board of Zoning Appeals, Planning and Zoning Commission, Environmental Advisory Council, Board of Education, Carroll Community College and Board of Elections all provided names of people designated for open meetings training. No designee has been submitted for the Carroll County Board of Commissioners.
Among Carroll's municipalities, records indicate that only Sykesville and Taneytown have notified the attorney general's office of someone being designated for open meetings training for the town and city respectively. No one is designated for any of the boards or commissions for either municipality.
According to the fiscal note attached to the original bill, state law defines a public body as "any entity that (1) consists of at least two individuals and (2) is created by the Maryland Constitution; a State statute; a county or municipal charter; an ordinance; a rule, resolution, or bylaw; or an executive order of the Governor or of the chief executive authority of a political subdivision."
Planning boards, zoning appeals boards, tree and sanitation district commissions, as well as community colleges, libraries and school systems should all have designees who have taken the course.
Caroline County lists 36 different boards, commissions and task forces that have representatives who have taken the open meetings course.
Rockville lists 19 boards, commissions and task forces that have representatives who have taken the course. Baltimore City lists 43 boards, commissions and task forces whose representatives have taken the course.
In some cases, representatives of local governments may be taking the required course, but then neglecting to send an email to the attorney general's office noting who the designee is and that they have completed the training.
The office has no email from the City of Westminster indicating anyone has taken a class. However, in a response to an Aug. 28, 2014, complaint filed with the Open Meetings Compliance Board, the city wrote that the mayor and city administrator have since taken a Maryland Municipal League course on the requirements of the act.
Enrollments spike with passage of law
Thomas Reynolds, director of educational services for the Maryland Municipal League, said that while he didn't have exact numbers, enrollment in the class offered as part of the Academy for Excellence in Local Governance has been fairly consistent over the years.
"There might be a slightly larger number of folks post-passage of the law," he said.
Enrollments spiked in October 2013 when the law went into effect and again in March 2014, coinciding with the six month deadline. In October 2013, enrollment in the three online Open Meetings Act classes — introduction, lesson 1 and review — totaled 1,424. The 1,996 enrollments in March 2014 were by far the highest in a three-year period of 2012-2014, according to statistics from the University of Maryland's Institute for Governmental Service and Research.
Reynolds said reminding participants in the class that they have to let the attorney general's office know they've completed the training would probably also be helpful.
Resources, education needed to enforce law
Governments face no penalties for failing to comply with the law. The way the legislation was written, no resources were provided to the attorney general's office to administer the law or to ensure that government bodies comply.
Johnson said it comes down to education and education requires resources.
"There are some things you can do around the margins and with limited resources, and that is being done. But if you want to take it to the next level, the board needs resources," she said. "That cannot happen effectively under the current setup."
Del. Anthony O'Donnell, a Democrat representing Calvert and St. Mary's counties, was a sponsor of the original bill. In an email highlighting the number of governments not in compliance, he said, "I want to consider it thoughtfully and possibly discuss with the elected official charged with compliance generally to all Maryland laws and specifically our Open Meetings Act, that being the Attorney General."
Del. Susan Krebs, R-District 5, another of the bill's sponsors, said more needs to be done to educate the boards and commissions in state government.
"We pass bills down here all the time, and then there is no follow-up," she said. "The spirit of the law was to get people educated on the open meetings law. It wasn't to ding people."
She said she wanted to talk to Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh about what the next steps might be.
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For Johnson, the next step would include providing resources to the attorney general's office and Open Meetings Compliance Board.
"There are different roles and responsibilities that would benefit from additional resources — public outreach, advocacy — things we currently don't do," she said. "We are focused on giving advice. That's what we do. We are currently not set up to conduct an awareness campaign."
Like Krebs, Johnson said it is a matter of priorities.
"When it's important, there's funding and there is staff for it," she said. "Not that this isn't important, but in order to really get it done, that's what you are going to need.
Over time, Johnson said, the goal is getting governments to understand that transparency is not only part of their job, but also the normal way of doing business.
"Culture can change, but it takes a lot and you have to keep at it," she said. "You have to be in it for the long haul, and it is incremental. It's not going to happen overnight, but you have to keep moving forward."
Reach staff writer Jim Lee at 410-857-7878 or email email@example.com.