A former Carroll County commissioner and wife of a sitting city councilman has filed a civil suit against Mayor James McCarron Jr. and the Taneytown City Council for allegedly violating the state's open meetings laws.
Taneytown resident Robin Bartlett Frazier, a former commissioner and wife of Taneytown Councilman Donald Frazier, filed the complaint Aug. 8 in Carroll County Circuit Court, accusing the council of multiple violations of the Maryland Open Meetings Act stemming from a June 22 closed session and seeking appropriate relief.
Robert Kurland served the complaint to McCarron, City Manager Henry Heine, City Attorney Jay Gullo Jr. and the five members of the City Council, including Robin Frazier's husband, Donald Frazier, at the Taneytown City Council workshop Wednesday, Sept. 7.
Gullo and McCarron declined to comment due to the pending litigation.
The June 22 closed session referred to in the suit was attended by Councilmen Joseph Vigliotti, Bradley Wantz and Angelo Zambetti; Councilwoman Diane Foster phoned into the meeting, and Heine and Gullo were also in attendance, according to the meeting minutes. "A legal letter received by the city threatening litigation from attorney for councilmember Frazier" is the only item listed as a topic discussed, according to the minutes.
Under Maryland's Open Meetings Act, many state and local public bodies must hold their meetings in public and make available to citizens things like meeting minutes. But some bodies have a way to circumvent these regulations without violating open meetings laws.
In her complaint, Robin Frazier alleges there was no mention of the June 22 closed meeting on Taneytown's website and it wasn't until the day of that a paper notification of the session was posted in the glass-encased bulletin board outside City Hall. Signed affidavits from Robin Frazier and resident Katherine Adelaide indicate both arrived prior to the 7 p.m. start time but were told by city staff that no portion of the meeting was open to the public and were turned away.
Maryland's Open Meetings Act stipulates that "a public body shall give reasonable advance notice of the session," and that prior to a public body meeting in closed session "the presiding officer shall … conduct a recorded vote on the closing of the session; and … make a written statement of the reason for closing the meeting."
Robin Frazier also notes in her complaint that minutes of the closed session were not presented at the next two open meetings of the council and that it wasn't until the Aug. 3 meeting that "a legally deficient statement regarding the June 22, 2016 closed meeting was presented for the first time." State law provides that written minutes for a public body's next open session shall include "a statement of the time, place, and purpose of the closed session," among other items.
"Transparency is paramount in a republic," Robin Frazier said in a Thursday phone interview. "The government is not of the people, by the people and for the people if the people can't see the business the government is transacting and keeping it accountable. This government has proven that it ignores the law. It ignores the Constitution. It's ignored its own charter. This is about keeping the government accountable to the people."
Robin Frazier said she filed the complaint because "they've been violating the Open Meetings law in several areas."
"They are blatantly ignoring the basics of open meetings," she said. "They violated it on June 22. That was a closed meeting, and Open Meetings 101 says you have to have an open meeting and then vote to have a closed meeting. During that open meeting, the public has the ability to watch their elected officials talk about why they're closing the meeting and how they're going to vote. The closed meeting has to be described as to why it should be closed. If there's any debate, the public should be able to see it and that did not occur."
Robin Frazier also said her husband, Councilman Donald Frazier, was never notified of an open meeting on June 22.
"It was posted as a closed meeting on their bulletin board, and it appeared to have been done on the day of the meeting," Robin Frazier said. "I went and knocked on the locked door. I asked Henry [Heine] if there was a meeting, and he said it was a closed meeting and you're not invited. The principle behind the Open Meetings Act, as I've read it, is that the public has the right to know how public decisions are made and to participate in making them. Governments that are not transparent are prone to corruption."
The issue seems to be complicated in that the meeting was to discuss potential litigation against the city from attorney Daniel L. Cox, who is representing Donald Frazier.
Cox, an Emmitsburg resident who is running as a Republican for Maryland's 8th Congressional District seat, attended a June Taneytown City Council meeting and spoke during public comment. Later in June, Donald Frazier handed out a letter to the council from Cox that called some of the city's ordinances unconstitutional.
On June 20, Gullo sent an email to Cox advising him of the closed session on June 22 "for the purpose of [the city council] consulting with me to obtain legal advice. As a courtesy to you I can inform you that the subject matter of this discussion will focus on the contents of your email dated May 25, 2016 and correspondence dated June 13, 2016.
"These correspondences clearly state that you are representing Donald Frazier and express an adversarial position against the City of Taneytown, specifically including a threat of legal action to protect your client. As such, Mr. Frazier's interest in this matter presents a conflict with his fiduciary duties as a Councilman on behalf of the City. Accordingly, it would be inappropriate for him to attend the above-referenced meeting and be party to the discussion of the legal matters related to a potential claim he may make against the City.
"As you are aware the Rules of Professional Conduct prohibit me from contacting Councilman Frazier directly on this matter, thus I will leave it to you to inform him of this situation."
Donald Frazier said there has been no legal action against the council before his wife's complaint.
"Cox and I met, but I have not paid him. I'm working in his campaign. He's offering his services pro bono [or 'for the public good']. He never mentioned any meeting or gave me any notice," he said in a Thursday phone interview.
When reached via email, Cox wrote, "I have no comment as I am not involved in this litigation."
Donald Frazier said that he has been concerned about how aggressive the City Council has been toward his efforts to improve government and "keeping Taneytown government lean, accessible and open."
"I want my time on the City Council to be a time when government gets better. Before I left, I got Councilman Wantz and Vigliotti to agree that while I was away in Africa they would have no meetings," he said. "I learned two citizens had been turned away from city hall during a meeting that I was promised wouldn't happen. Who knows what was discussed? I object that they marked me absent for that meeting.
"Everyone knows I run a ministry in town and I have to go overseas to do ministry work. I always tell the council before I leave. People across the street read the bulletin board and told Robin about it. It wasn't advertised on the website or in the paper. If they had a different attitude about making this big mistake, they wouldn't have so many people angry about it."
Gullo said the litigation is pending and he was unsure of the timeline.
The Taneytown City Council is next scheduled to meet at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Sept. 12 at the City Office, at 17 E. Baltimore St.