ROCK HALL It's not easy to get simple answers to simple questions when you ask state government.

Remember the 2008 Bay Bridge crash that killed a truck driver? Afterward, the safety of the Maryland Transportation Authority's bridges and tunnels came under fire and legislators asked whether structural inspections were adequate. Gov. Martin O'Malley directed then-Transportation Secretary John Porcari to hire a panel of transportation specialists from outside the state to review what the MDTA had been doing. By issuing the order, the governor created a public body.

As it turned out, the MDTA "Bridge and Tunnel Inspection Peer Review Panel" (or Peer Review Group) met secretly for more than six months even though its activities fell squarely under the Open Meetings Act. All that's known about its meetings is a single statement in the final report: "... a seven-member Panel of experts ... met extensively between October 2008 and May 2009." They were told to answer the complex question, "Are bridge and tunnel inspections in Maryland good enough?" and they did, issuing a June 1 final report.

The simple question was: "Where are the Peer Review Group minutes and when did they meet?"

The plain answer, after more than a year and three complaints filed with the Open Meetings Compliance Board, is "nowhere, and no one can say."

That's illegal, the compliance board said this month: "We find that the Peer Review Group violated the Act," the three-member board wrote in a March 10 opinion letter. Its members failed to keep meeting minutes, required by law, or advertise meetings. And, they wrote, "We encourage the staff of the Transportation Authority to consider carefully and adhere to the requirements of the Act, if called upon to staff any future panels."

The search for Peer Review minutes began in December 2009 and isn't over.

Del. Mike Smigiel, who was among those who questioned whether the MDTA's bridges are safe, said Monday, "I think the system's broken if it takes that long with all that effort to get something from a government agency the law says they must provide."

First, the MDTA demanded a written Public Information Act request (the OMCB has since stated no one can demand a written PIA request for meeting minutes). At the time, MDTA press contact Kelly Melhem wrote, "These minutes currently are available in audio format. ... We can also make them available to you electronically once they are transcribed. We expect the transcription to take a couple of weeks, due to the time of year."

But the MDTA's letter supplying the requested documents, on April 22, 2010, said nothing about Peer Review transcripts or minutes and none was provided.

In the other documents they sent, they censored large portions. This caused followup open meetings filings taking issue with censored or unavailable minutes. In reply, the MDTA's attorney said the agency could censor minutes at will; and since the review group disbanded, they did not have to respond.

The compliance board was not convinced by this. In rulings in July and November 2010, they flatly said it could not censor minutes, and it didn't give enough explanation about the Peer Review Group: "We find that the response failed to satisfy" what the law requires from a public body after a complaint has been filed, they wrote.

In December 2010, the Kent County News specifically detailed how the Review Group met illegally in a third open meetings complaint. Assistant Attorney General Sherita Harrison gave the agency's position in a Jan. 21 letter, first, "The Authority never advised ... that the Peer Review Group was not a public body ... by definition (it) was a public body." She said "the Authority staff did not properly follow the Act with regard to holding meeting of the Peer Review Group" but that wasn't "intentional or deliberate."

Next, "The Authority ... does not have documents relating to the Peer Review Group." But since it "provided access to a detailed report" in July 2009 it doesn't matter that no minutes were kept.

Again, the compliance board was unconvinced. Its members wrote, "A final report, however comprehensive, does not satisfy the requirements of the statute (and) even if a report issued at the end of a public body's existence were to contain everything that would have appeared in minutes," it's no good.

The point of published minutes is to make "information available on a more timely basis. ... This may be critical to those members of the public who wish to keep current on the activities of a public body, when unable to attend its meetings."

Second, the board wrote, "tape recordings were made for approximately half of the panel's meetings and were ultimately transcribed. ... a transcription that is created on a timely basis does satisfy the minutes requirement" if it is approved and available to the public. Making them available would help satisfy the law's requirements.

Cheryl Sparks, MDTA communications director, said Tuesday she would find out which transcripts are available.

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