EASTON — The Open Meetings Compliance Board determined the Talbot County Council and its president did not breach Maryland open meetings laws despite complaints alleging the contrary concerning two separate instances in July.
One series of complaints claimed the council violated the law when it closed its July 28 meeting to the public citing coronavirus health safety concerns. The filings alleged citizens did not have adequate remote access to the meeting and argued the council should have decided in public whether to close the meeting.
A second complaints string asserted Council President Corey Pack broke the law when he convened a three-way phone call among himself and two other council members to discuss the council’s already-cast vote to close the July 28 meeting.
The compliance board issued two separate opinions to address several filings related to both alleged violations and found that neither instance constituted a breach of existing open meetings laws.
With regard to the council’s private vote to prohibit public attendance at its July 28 meeting, the board found that “the question fell within the Council’s administrative function” and it was “appropriate for the Council members to address it in the way they did.”
The council had expected the meeting to attract several dozen citizens for a public hearing ahead of the council’s Aug. 11 vote on whether to remove the Talbot Boys Confederate monument, which it ultimately voted 3-2 to keep.
County Health Officer Dr. Fredia Wadley had recommended the meeting closure to prevent further spread of COVID-19, and the council heeded Wadley’s advice.
The compliance board stated the council “could not have convened a public meeting on logistics without someone deciding how to hold that meeting.” The board also found that the council provided adequate alternatives to in-person attendance at the July 28 meeting that ensured the public could hear the meeting.
The board’s opinion stated, “... we find that Council provided reasonable access to its meeting when it provided the public with access by telephone, internet, or cable television as substitutions for admission to the meeting room.”
“Clearly, some methods did not work as well as others, but, from the video, we do not conclude that the technical difficulties with the sound were so extensive as to violate the Act,” the board wrote.
On the issue of Pack’s allegedly initiating a three-way call that violated the law stating that a majority of the council cannot convene off the public record to handle county business, the board cleared Pack of any wrongdoing.
Because the phone conversation pertained to business the council had already conducted — the private July 27 vote to close the July 28 meeting to the public — the board found that Pack was only seeking to “speak with a fellow member or members to clear the air, whether by explaining his vote on it or asking about theirs.”
Pack previously told The Star Democrat he disagreed with the council’s decision to close the meeting and had been upset by the vote. At the time of the alleged violation, Pack maintained that he had not violated open meetings laws because the vote he was addressing on the call had already taken place.
The board wrote in its opinion that the “topic might have pertained more to the betterment of interpersonal relationships among the council members than to an item of business under consideration and might not have constituted public business.”
“... Even had the three members discussed anything at all in the brief moment in which the third member joined the call, and whether or not the purpose of the call was to re-consider the meeting logistics or simply to discuss them, the topic fell within the County Council’s administrative function,” the board’s opinion read.
The council is expected to present the compliance board’s findings at its Tuesday, Nov. 17, meeting, according to the council’s agenda.