Panel says Carroll commissioners violated Open Meetings Act

A state panel said Wednesday that members of the Carroll County Board of Commissioners violated the state's Open Meetings Act by holding a fee-based forum on a controversial smart-growth policy attended by a majority of the board.

"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. "We commend the County's prompt posting of materials from the event on its website. That action, however, does not serve as a substitute for compliance."

The board did not recommend a sanction.

Three of the Carroll County board's five commissioners attended the Oct. 31, 2011, forum on PlanMaryland, held at a Baltimore County hotel to challenge assertions made in the state's smart-growth proposal regarding global warming, mass transit, septic systems and other environmental issues. Attendees included state Planning Secretary Richard Hall and public officials from many of the state's rural counties.

County officials dispute that the forum, which was attended by about 100 people who paid $25 for the day-long event , was a public meeting because only two of the commissioners spoke and no votes were cast.

The compliance board disagreed: "A quorum of the members of the County Board met at the forum for the consideration of public business and … the event was therefore subject to the Act."

Organizers say the fee was necessary to pay the costs to put on the event without a heavy burden on taxpayers. Though the board was authorized to spend up to $10,000 on the event, it ultimately spent about $3,600, according to county officials.

Richard Rothschild, vice president of the Carroll County Board of Commissioners, organized the forum and called the panel's findings "a very minor thing."

"Any suggestion that this was a closed meeting is really inappropriate," said Rothschild, a Republican. "We didn't deliberate. We didn't vote on anything. This was an informational meeting."

Rothschild noted that the meeting was open to the news media and that several reporters attended and published articles. The county also videotaped the forum and posted it on the official county website.

Neil Ridgely, a Carroll County resident who has been critical of the commissioners' opposition to PlanMaryland, filed the complaint. He could not be reached Wednesday for comment.

Gov. Martin O'Malley officially adopted the plan as state growth policy in late December.

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