In a 12-page opinion released yesterday, Maryland's Open Meetings Compliance Board said the Carroll County commissioners have violated state law on several occasions by conducting county business behind closed doors.
"Although the county commissioners ... have some latitude to hold closed meetings that are simply not covered by the Open Meetings Act, in certain respects, the commissioners have overstepped the bounds of the 'executive function,' exclusion," the three-member compliance board wrote.
The opinion was written in response to a complaint by Finksburg resident Neil Ridgely, who alleged that the commissioners violated state law on 51 occasions by holding meetings that were "closed for no specific topic, for illegitimate topics or held with undisclosed individuals."
Ridgely hailed the decision, which he said, "says politely that the commissioners screwed up. It is a slam dunk."
Commissioner Robin Bartlett Frazier, who is serving her first term on the three-member board, said, "It's an opinion, and I'm always ready for constructive criticism so we can improve. For me, if it's debatable, we should have it open." Commissioners Donald I. Dell and Julia Walsh Gouge could not be reached for comment.
Speaking for the board, County Attorney Laurell Taylor said the opinion "clarifies things. We're certainly going to abide by their interpretation, even though we may not agree with their interpretation of the law."
In its opinion, the three-member compliance board did not address each of Ridgely's complaints, but rather sought to educate the county commissioners on the Open Meetings Act. The board's ruling against a governing body is not uncommon. Since the board's inception in 1993, it has found that a public body has violated the act at least half the time, records show.
Under the law, elected officials can meet two ways without the public being present. One is by meeting under "executive function," which the Carroll commissioners refer to as "executive session." The other is to meet in "closed session." Ridgely's complaint covered both types.
Only closed sessions are subject to the open meetings law. Public boards may go into closed session to discuss personnel matters, land acquisition, legal issues or business prospects. They must publicly vote on, and then note the reason for, closing the meeting. Carroll commissioners publish the reasons for closing meetings on their weekly agenda.
In executive function, commissioners may meet privately to do anything except make or change a law.
"The compliance board tried to provide as much guidance as it could about line-drawing," said Jack Schwartz, assistant attorney general and counsel for the board. "In essence, if what's going on is the process of developing new policy - even in early stages - then the Open Meetings Act applies."
Among other examples, the compliance board noted a July 25 commissioners' meeting to discuss a construction management contract for Winter's Mill High School being built in Westminster. The compliance board said the discussion of approving, disapproving or amending a contract "involved a quasi-legislative function subject to the Act, not an executive function" and found that "proper procedures to close [the meeting] were not followed."
In the past year, the commissioners have met behind closed doors and discussed budget priorities, banned Sunday morning recreational activities at county parks and agreed to buy farmland near Union Bridge for more than six times its appraised value.
Although Ridgely complained about those three meetings, the compliance board did not specifically address them. However, the board noted that the state Court of Appeals has made it clear "that the Act applies, not only to final decisions made by the public body ... but as well as to all deliberations which proceed the actual legislative act or decision."
Said Ridgely: "The bottom line is, this decision will provide much-needed sunshine on county affairs. I am hoping the commissioners and their executive staff will abide by the spirit of this law and not try to find ways to get around it."