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Howard County school board violated Open Meetings Act, state officials say

The Maryland Open Meetings Compliance Board recently determined that it was legal for the Howard County school board to discuss Foose's new contract behind closed doors under the Open Meeting Act's exemption for personnel matters. But it also found that the school board has violated the act in the way that it notifies the public about closed meetings.
The Maryland Open Meetings Compliance Board recently determined that it was legal for the Howard County school board to discuss Foose's new contract behind closed doors under the Open Meeting Act's exemption for personnel matters. But it also found that the school board has violated the act in the way that it notifies the public about closed meetings.

In filing a complaint against the Howard County school board with the state Open Meetings Compliance Board, Craig O'Donnell was focused on the body's handling of Superintendent Renee Foose's contract renewal.

The Dover Post web editor who advocates for open governance in his spare time had read Howard County Times coverage of the January vote and "saw an issue there," he said.

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"When you're talking about a contract and it's clear that the public is interested and it's a superintendent or some other highly placed figure, you can't do the whole thing in secret," he said. "There should've at least been discussion before the vote. To say we can talk about it after the vote — that's absurd. It's really absurd."

Citing a section of the Open Meetings Act that designates contracts as quasi-legislative issues that must be discussed in public, O'Donnell said that the board should have discussed Foose's new contract in open session before voting on it. School board member Cindy Vaillancourt introduced a motion to discuss Foose's contract before the vote, but it was rejected by a majority of the other members.

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The compliance board recently determined that it was legal for the Howard County school board to discuss Foose's new contract behind closed doors under the act's exemption for personnel matters. But it also found that the school board has violated the act in the way that it notifies the public about closed meetings.

According to the act, government bodies cannot hold meetings that are entirely closed to the public; they can vote at an open meeting to go into closed session to discuss topics specifically precluded from public discussion, such as negotiations. The Howard County Board of Education, however, routinely sends email notifications about closed meetings.

"That language implies to the public that they cannot come," O'Donnell said.

In an opinion letter issued June 10, the compliance board wrote, "The public is entitled to observe the public body's vote to close a meeting, so the public body must be given notice of the open meeting at which the vote will be held."

Before voting, the board's presiding officer must also prepare a written statement citing the relevant exception to the Open Meetings Act allowing for the topic at hand to be discussed in closed session.

The Board of Education's closing statements, as seen by the compliance board, did not include reasons for excluding the public.

The school board had the opportunity to respond to O'Donnell's complaint before the compliance board issued an opinion, but also sent a response to the opinion on June 17 via Rochelle Eisenberg, a contracted attorney, requesting that the compliance board reconsider its findings.

Board of Education Chairwoman Christine O'Connor said Friday that it is "premature" for her to comment on the compliance board's opinion before it responds to the school board's request for reconsideration.

O'Donnell, who previously worked for 10-plus years as a reporter in Kent County, said he was hoping for an opinion with "a little more weight to it."

He said that there is an overlap between the personnel exemption and the contract clause of the act that needs to be clarified.

"That doesn't mean the other violations aren't meaningful," he said. "Groups that have sloppy practices will say, it's a technicality, it's a detail. But it is not unimportant. It's all about informing the public."

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