Carroll residents accuse Board of Commissioners of violating open meetings rules

Debate over the meaning of gold-colored sheets of paper passed among members of the Carroll County Board of Commissioners has pitted the elected officials against residents who allege they are thumbing their noses at state open meetings rules.

Two residents complained to the commissioners and state officials Tuesday that the so-called "goldenrod" form — or as it's officially known, the "Board of County Commissioners Action Authorization Form" — violates the state's Open Meetings Act, which requires elected officials to meet publicly when conducting official government business.

Neil M. Ridgely, a former Carroll County employee, filed a complaint against the commissioners Tuesday, writing to the Open Meetings Compliance Board, which is supported by the state attorney general's office, and asking them to investigate.

A spokesman for the attorney general's office did not respond to a message seeking comment Tuesday.

"I think they use it to defraud the public," Ridgely said of the goldenrod forms. "They float that form as sort of a transmission among themselves. If they get three, that's essentially a vote. They arrange that stuff ahead of time."

Members of the board of commissioners denied the allegations. They said the form simply serves as an administrative tool to organize meeting agendas. The form requires three members of the board of commissioners to sign off on any staff directives related to upcoming or pending matters before the board, according to commissioners.

Asked whether the form could serve as an unspoken policy stamp of approval on the five-member, all-Republican body, Commissioner Doug Howard answered, "absolutely not."

The commissioners erupted in laughter when asked about the issue following Tuesday's public meeting.

"Is this Sherlock Holmes or is this government?" said Commissioner Richard Rothschild.

"It never takes the place of a policy decision at an open meeting," Howard said of the forms.

Judith Smith, a homemaker from the small Carroll community of Union Bridge, asked the commissioners for an explanation of the form during Tuesday's public meeting.

"When I first heard the term goldenrod, that sort of made me curious, what was he referring to," said Smith." I think the public deserves some sort of explanation of this practice."

Howard told Smith he would provide a written response.

Earlier this year, a complaint filed by Ridgely, resulted in the Open Meetings Compliance Board ruling that the Carroll commissioners violated the state's Open Meetings Act by holding a fee-based forum on a controversial smart-growth policy. "The County Board violated the Act by charging admission to a meeting held for the consideration of public business," the Open Meetings Compliance Board said in a written opinion.

The board didn't recommend a sanction.

Ridgely said the "goldenrod" issue came to the forefront last month when commissioners were debating during a public meeting about whether to sue the state over its recent congressional redistricting overhaul. Some commissioners worry the new congressional district map dilutes Carroll's voting strength by adding it to districts primarily consisting of voters from Howard and Frederick counties. One commissioner mentioned a related goldenrod form, prompting residents to inquire about the practice.

The board ultimately voted in favor of suing the state.