State board says Plan Maryland forum violated Open Meetings Act

The Board of County Commissioners and the Maryland Open Meetings Compliance Board traded barbs on Wednesday over whether the county violated open meetings law when it held its controversial "PlanMaryland: At the Crossroads" forum in October.

In a ruling issued Feb. 1, the state board said the forum, which discussed Gov.Martin O'Malley's smart growth policy, violated Maryland open meeting's statute because a fee of $25 was charged by organizers to help cover costs.

"The county board violated the (open meetings) act by charging admission to a meeting held for the consideration of public business," the board said in its opinion, according to a report from the Baltimore Sun.

But in a release this evening, the commissioners said they, "respectfully disagree with this ruling, and believe that their actions were appropriate and consistent with the spirit of the open meetings law."

The Oct. 31, 2011, forum was held at the Pikesville Hilton, and included speakers discussing PlanMaryland and its assertions related to mass transit, land-use guidelines, sprawl, climate change, the impact of septic systems and other issues. Attendees included three of the five county commissioners, state Planning Secretary Richard Hall, public officials from several counties — and a panel selected by organizers that included George Frigon, an environmental consultant, and Ed Braddy, executive director of the American Dream Coalition.

The commissioners contended that the forum was open to all, and said, in fact, it wasn't a "meeting" as defined by the open meetings guidelines.

"No county business was transacted and the commissioners' decision to oppose PlanMaryland was made at various public meetings well in advance of this forum," said the commissioners in the press release. "The commissioners' attendance at the forum (which was co-sponsored by 12 other organizations, in addition to the county) was more akin to attending any other lecture or informational session.

The commissioners also said the cost to attend "covered the cost of the luncheon provided by the facility."

The commissioners had voted to cap its expenses on the forum at no more than $10,000, and sought donations and partners to pay for the event. The Sun reported that it ultimately spent about $3,600, according to county officials.

"The press was present during the entire event and reporters were even live blogging throughout the day," said the commissioners release. "The commissioners went even further and published the entire event on the county website within 24 hours.

"It is inconceivable to call this forum a closed meeting …," the commissioners said.

The open meetings compliance board commended the county for videotaping the event and posting it on the county website, but said that, "does not serve as a substitute for compliance."

And the panel said the meeting did fall under open meetings statues because, "A quorum of the members of the county board met at the forum for the consideration of public business."

The compliance board's finding carries no fine or sanction.

The complaint had been filed by Neil Ridgely, a resident and former sustainability coordinator under the previous Board of County Commissioners. Ridgely has been critical of the commissioners' opposition to Plan Maryland.

In an email to The Eagle, Ridgely said he was pleased with the state compliance board's ruling.

"This was a meeting and a quorum of the elected officials were present. The commissioners obviously called the meeting and the participated in it. Both the letter and the spirit of the open meetings act was broken," he wrote. "The fact that the meeting was not held in Carroll County — where it could have been done free of charge at (Carroll) Community College, and that they charged admission for some to attend, is what motivated me to file a complaint."

"The decision by the (compliance board) is clear in illustrating that just because a vote was not taken does not make it any less a meeting," he wrote. "The commissioners don't get that important point, but citizens must have the right to attend discussions that the commissioners have which lead up to a final decision."

Ridgely also blasted the commissioners' press release rebutting the open meeting board's ruling, saying it, "implies they are both defiant of the law and beyond the reach of the law.

"I cannot afford to sue the commissioners to assure future compliance, but I do hope the Maryland Attorney General's Office takes them to task on their response," he said.

Ridgely said he also believes the county should "reimburse the 29 people of the 149 that attended who paid admission to what was an illegally closed meeting," and that the commissioners should, "issue an apology ... and promise to never use county funds to underwrite a political cause of theirs again."

The Sun reported Wednesday that Richard Rothschild, vice president of the Board of County Commissioners, called the panel's findings "a very minor thing."

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

Nicole Fuller of the Baltimore Sun contributed to this story

To view the Board of County Commissioners’ initial response to the open meetings complaint, the Open Meetings Compliance Board ruling and yesterday’s response from the commissioners, see related items on the left.

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