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As COVID pandemic abates, Maryland officials grapple with when and how to face the public again

The post-pandemic reopening process has come in fits and starts.

In April, Maryland courts resumed full operations, including jury trials. A month later, the Maryland State House reopened its doors to the public.

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But in Baltimore, which has lagged behind much of the state increasing its coronavirus vaccination rate, city officials announced just last week that they’ll begin restoring public-facing services, such as bill-paying windows and permitting services on Aug. 15.

And that plan does not include a reopening date for City Hall — or the restoration of in-person public meetings.

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Like public officials across the state, Baltimore leaders have grappled with how and when to bring back face-to-face public meetings. The sessions, a staple of the governing process since the earliest days of American democracy, have been relegated to virtual forums for more than a year, thanks to the coronavirus.

For some, the switch has been a positive one, making daytime sessions more accessible to the city’s 9-to-5 working population. For others, the lack of face-to-face contact has hampered communication between residents and the lawmakers who represent them, particularly the loss of conversations before and after meetings, when much happens informally.

For now, the law appears to be on Baltimore leaders’ side. Maryland’s Open Meetings Act allows public bodies to hold virtual meetings, pandemic or no. And the Open Meetings Act Compliance Board ruled during the pandemic that officials can gather in person while excluding the public — as long as they provide alternative means for people to watch and participate, such as livestreaming and a call-in number.

The upcoming end of Maryland’s state of emergency won’t alter those powers, said Michael Greenberger, director of the Center for Health and Homeland Security at the University of Maryland School of Law. Greenberger specializes in executive powers during emergencies.

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But it will increase the pressure on public bodies to begin allowing the public inside, he said.

“It will be harder for them to say, ‘You must keep the public out,’ even if they offer alternative ways for the public to observe,” he said.

While Republican Gov. Larry Hogan announced that it was being lifted as of July 1, Maryland’s state of emergency won’t legally expire until Aug. 15.

Even after that date, Baltimore officials could continue to argue that a public health emergency makes it too dangerous to admit the general public to meetings, Greenberger said. And that case is easier to make given confusion now around masking recommendations related to variants of the coronavirus, he said.

“I think it would give a body the wiggle room to say, if they had a public health expert’s support, they could hold a meeting in person, but keep the public out,” he said.

So far, Baltimore’s most visible boards have predominantly opted to meet in an entirely virtual setting, although hearings on the 2022 city budget were conducted with some City Council members in council chambers, while others were at home.

All-virtual meetings give public bodies more cover under the Open Meetings Act, Greenberger said.

But many other jurisdictions across the region are beginning to experiment with hybrid formats. The Howard County Board of Education has allowed some members to meet in person, while others are virtual. Residents can choose to participate either way, but must register in advance.

The Harford County Board of Education will try something similar this month. Fifty seats will be available to the public, and public comment will be limited to those with seats. But community members can also participate virtually if they register by 9 a.m. on the day of the meeting.

Joanne Antoine, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, said she would like to see all public boards move to some sort of hybrid format. Virtual meetings have opened the door for people with children to participate and for those who have less flexible work schedules, she said.

Still, there have been accessibility issues during the pandemic for those with disabilities, Antoine said. In-person meetings will be necessary for some. There’s also the issue of the digital divide for people who don’t have access to the internet or a computer, Antoine said. Access hasn’t been increased across the board.

Even in cases where those barriers don’t exist, sometimes nothing replaces in-person conversation, Antoine said.

“Thinking about (the state legislative) session, we managed to get through it,” she said. “But a lot of times you needed to be in the hallway to catch a legislator or staffer, talk to a member of the press. It’s the same at the local level, as well.”

Antoine urged governing bodies to survey residents to ask them what is and isn’t working about the process and how it can be improved. The solution then needs to be clearly communicated to the public, she said.

Democratic Mayor Brandon Scott said last week that participation in Baltimore’s public meetings has increased as meetings have gone virtual. City officials are searching for a way to keep those participants, while allowing for some in-person participation, he said.

Roger Hartley, dean of the University of Baltimore’s College of Public Affairs, cautioned that there may be a difference between increased attendance and increase participation.

“Depending on the system, you may not see the participants in the audience,” he said. “You may not have the opportunity to easily call on people. Sometimes questions are forwarded and screened, whereas in a public meeting, someone can stand up and speak. You can see everyone and each other, and they can note who is in attendance.”

Virtual meetings have other drawbacks, Hartley said. People feel less inhibited, and decorum suffers.

“It’s less personal, so you can be a whole lot less personal in your comments,” he said. “You can perhaps attack harder than you would if you saw someone in the flesh.”

Hartley said he expects to see scholarly work done following the pandemic on the subject of government transparency going forward. Governments have traditionally been slow to transition to new formats and performed poorly at online transparency, he said.

“This could revolutionize governments who, frankly, used to just stick up a webpage with links on it,” he said. “If they’re going to allow access like this through the web, they’re going to have to demonstrate information through the web.”

How your public officials meet:

Public bodies across the region have been grappling with when and how to change the format of their meetings. Below is an overview of how councils and boards are meeting in Central Maryland.

Anne Arundel County Council: In-person meetings beginning the week of July 5.

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Anne Arundel County School Board: Hybrid meetings. Board members convene in-person, but public comment is allowed in-person and online.

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Baltimore City Council: Virtual meetings. Residents can participate only at committee meetings.

Baltimore City School Board: Virtual meetings, although some members of the board convene in the meeting room.

Baltimore County Council: Virtual meetings.

Baltimore County School Board: Hybrid meetings. Some members meet in-person, while others appear virtually. Some staff also gather in the board room during meetings.

Carroll County Board of Commissioners: In-person meetings since June 1.

Carroll County School Board: In-person meetings. The public has been allowed to attend meetings since June 10.

Harford County Council: In-person meetings resumed, with limitations, on April 6. Meetings opened fully to the public by mid-May.

Harford County School Board: Hybrid meetings beginning July 12. Fifty seats will be available to the public. In-person public comment will be limited to those seated in the board room. Residents participating virtually will also be allowed to speak, but must register by 9 a.m. the day of the meeting.

Howard County Council: Virtual meetings. Community members are allowed to participate virtually by registering in advance.

Howard County School Board: Hybrid meeting format. Some members meet in-person, while others appear virtually. Community members are allowed to participate either virtually or in person, but must register in advance to do either.

Baltimore Sun reporters Liz Bowie and Taylor DeVille and Baltimore Sun Media reporters Madison Bateman, S. Wayne Carter, Kristen Griffith, Erin Hardy and Ada Romano contributed to this article.

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