EASTON — In the heat of the ongoing Talbot Boys debate lies another controversy among clashing county lawmakers: an accusation that Talbot County Council President Corey Pack initiated a three-way phone call that violated Maryland open meetings laws.
Council Member Frank Divilio told The Star Democrat he was “furious” after Pack called him and Council Vice President Chuck Callahan on a shared line on July 27 to discuss the council’s decision to deny citizens in-person access to a July 28 public hearing on the Talbot Boys statue’s fate.
When a majority of the council convenes to discuss any legislation or procedure, the talk has to be done in public, according to state law. Divilio said Pack should’ve called him and Callahan separately, which would have been open meetings compliant.
The public hearing on the statue was originally set to take place in the Easton High School auditorium to accommodate what was expected to be a significant number of in-person commenters. The high school hearing site was axed by local law enforcement and county health officials, who, Divilio said, determined they would not be able to ensure public safety from the coronavirus health threat.
The council had to decide between allowing some of the public inside the Bradley Meeting Room or closing the room entirely. Divilio said the auditorium would have been the “only true option” for a fair public hearing.
Pack was against blocking the public from attending the meeting, he said, and had called Divilio and Callahan to voice his opposition after the vote, which the council had cast in private.
The hearing was conducted with phoned-in or written comments only, per the health safety advice of County Health Officer Dr. Fredia Wadley amid the coronavirus pandemic. The council still gathered in person, but the meeting room was closed to the public except for press and presenters.
Divilio tried to bring his concern of an Open Meetings Act violation before the council at the July 28 meeting, but Pack “would not” add the item to the council’s agenda, he said.
The issue was later set for an Aug. 11 meeting, though it never was discussed because the council’s meeting was cut short by loud protesters outside the Bradley Meeting Room who made it difficult for the lawmakers to hear one another. The council added the item to a subsequent Aug. 25 agenda.
Divilio said he wanted the fact that the call happened to be in the public record because it “completely upset” him that Pack would convene a quorum to discuss county business, knowing that it was a “clear violation” of open meetings laws. He said he “scolded” Pack and hung up immediately.
“I hope that it was just a mistake,” Divilio said. “It happened during busy times.”
Critics of Pack were quick to draw attention to the council president’s potentially violating the open meetings law — but Pack did not defend himself nor comment on the allegations when Divilio brought up the call at an Aug. 25 meeting.
In an interview Monday, Sept. 14, Pack said his attempt to convene a joint phone call with Callahan and Divilio was not an open meetings violation because they were discussing a vote that had already occurred, as the council members often do, he said.
“The decision to close the Bradley Meeting Room was already made. My call was to express to them my displeasure in what they had done,” Pack said, adding that he only was attempting to have a discussion with his fellow lawmakers about the vote to block the public from attending the next day’s meeting.
Divilio floated the idea of taking further action on the issue to determine whether it was, in fact, an open meetings violation, but he did not state on the record what that action might be.