This past Sunday, The Star Democrat devoted extensive space to our county council’ s unsuccessful effort to persuade the State Open Meetings Compliance Board that the council did not violate the state open meetings law when it discussed and decided a matter of local importance in a series of a dozen emails and text messages.
The paper’s editorial appropriately concluded that the board’s finding of a violation was correct — “those (electronic) discussions, and any vote, should have been held in public.” However, because most of the remaining coverage focused on the council’s view that the board was wrong a number of important facts supporting the board were not reported.
• Section 212(f) of our charter provides that “No business (of the Council) may be transacted except in public sessions.”
• The compliance board has consistently held over the years that telephone conference calls among a quorum of a public body constitute meetings that must include the public.
• The board has warned state and local government agencies that decision-making by means of electronic communications often not accessible to the public can run afoul of the open meetings law depending on the circumstances.
• The council in this case decided under the Public Information Act not to disclose to the board the emails and text messages, in short arguing that the board should decide the case in favor of the council without access to the critical factual material needed to evaluate “the circumstances.” That was a bridge too far.
As a lawyer representing the state and Baltimore City at the highest levels for 20 of my 50 years in practice, open meetings compliance and non-compliance is something with which I am very familiar. It is generally possible to comply with these transparency requirements with only a minimal amount of inconvenience.