An opinion from a state board has put local governments on notice that electronic communications — including text messages and emails — between members of a public body may result in the members conducting a meeting subject to Maryland’s open meetings law.
The July 1 opinion from the Open Meetings Compliance Board was in response to a complaint against the Talbot County Council.
Two county council members said the board’s opinion expanded the act’s definition of a meeting.
Talbot County Council President Corey Pack, in an emailed comment, said: “This decision ... will not just negatively affect Talbot County, but every county and municipal body in the State of Maryland — we all will suffer from this gross over-reach.
“Clearly, this issue warrants further examination by the OMCB and the Maryland General Assembly if elected officials in our towns, cities and counties are to be able to do their jobs in an efficient manner,” Pack wrote.
“It’s a new precedent,” Talbot Councilman Laura Everngam Price said in a phone interview. “I think they have moved the bar without the county council knowing what that bar is. I would like to see clear rules so that no other county falls into this situation unknowingly.”
The compliance board, in its opinion, said it had “long cautioned against the use of electronic communications to decide substantive matters, both in the interest of the public — which is clearly deprived of the opportunity to observe the public body conduct its business — and in the interest of the members of (the) public body, who are at risk of violating the Act whenever they hold group discussions electronically,” the board wrote.
“And, once again, we strongly discourage the exchange of electronic communications on public business, no matter how carefully structured to avoid the presence of a quorum, as violative of the goals that the Act was intended to achieve,” the board wrote in its conclusion.
The complaint alleged the county council violated the Maryland Open Meetings Act by deciding — via emails and texts on Feb. 18 and 19 — to take positions on two bills before the state legislature.
In its opinion, the board said “the totality of circumstances leads us to conclude that the Council’s deliberations were more akin to conversations among a group that effectively convened to decide on the Council’s positions than to the sporadic exchange of written correspondence.”
To avoid such a violation, the board said public bodies could provide access to teleconferences by publishing a call-in number or having a speakerphone available at a published location.
Pack, in an emailed comment, said the Feb. 18-19 discussions “were not in the form of a group email, but in fact were one on one .... For the OMCB to conclude that elected officials talking to each other one on one constitutes a meeting of the elected body is absolutely preposterous.”
Although such a ruling would be preposterous, that’s not quite what the OMCB said in its opinion. The board noted that communications between Talbot council members had included some messages among the entire council and that all members knew the communications were for the purpose of the council addressing, as a group, the state legislation. As a result of those communications, a majority of the council made decisions to send letters about the legislation to the state house and senate committees considering the bills.
The board is correct: Those discussions, and any vote, should have been held in public.