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Washington County Responds to a Maryland Open Meetings Act complaint.

The complaint was filed last month as an excellent "case study" in how poorly maintained meetings documents can lead the public to suspect chicanery.

More than a year ago, the Washington Co. Commissioners approved an incentive offer to a company which might locate in the county. Unfortunately, their minutes from the time contain nothing informative.

A reporter looking at budget documents for the Hagerstown Herald Mail discovered what appeared to be a secret $100,000 payment to a real estate company. This was a year after the offer had been tendered.

The initial article is here.

A week or so later the county responded with additional detail -- that it was an incentive offer; that the real estate company's name was used as a proxy for the company, which demanded a non-disclosure agreement; and the bounty was never collected anyway.

That's here. What's interesting is that even the followup article doesn't have the date of the action in closed sessions, at least any more accurately than "March 2011."

From the response:
The Board has never, to our knowledge, received a complaint
alleging violation of the Act.

There's always a first time.

Once anyone has filed a written complaint with the Maryland Open Meetings Compliance Board, the "public body" has 30 days to respond in writing. (Sometimes an extension is granted, but not often). The OMCB itself is usually quite prompt in getting its Opinions out within another 30 days.

Typically, you will see that a lawyer composes the response, though the law does not require it. Any member of the public body, or their administrator, could send the explanation for the apparent violation back to the OMCB.

There's no special consideration given to responses composed by attorneys. I must say, though, they can often be hard to understand. And that, really, defeats the purpose of the complaint process. Complaints are allowed as long at they are based on a good-faith belief, by any citizen, that there was a violation. The Opinions are meant to instruct the public body how to proceed in the future, and educate them too.

Plain language is best all around.

Sometimes, however, the response seems to argue points of law rather than the facts of the specific meeting(s) in question.

Here, Washington County has two staff lawyers who wrote the reply, and they don't actually address the specifics in the complaint with facts.

The first parts of this case study were posted on the Maryland Transparency & Accountability blog, and was briefly diaried here.

In a followup MDT&A blog post we will look at the contents of the letter from a critical perspective.

Complaints are not intended to become back and forth arguments, but anyone who has filed a complaint can read the response and raise objections, issues or - especially important - provide additional facts if the public body has left something out.

Under the law the public body isn't supposed to leave anything out. But sometimes they do. Sometimes, it seems like it's deliberate. Sometimes, it's an artifact of disorganization.

Originally posted to dadadata on Thu Jun 07, 2012 at 11:59 AM PDT.

Also republished by Maryland Kos.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (4+ / 0-)

    Thump! Bang. Whack-boing. It's dub!

    by dadadata on Thu Jun 07, 2012 at 11:59:16 AM PDT

  •  My father was the director of the (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Larsstephens, JamieG from Md

    Washington County Free Library from 1962 to 1971. He built their old main library building, which I understand is being replaced. How is construction going?

    I haven't been back to Hagerstown in almost 20 years. It was not looking great then; I hope it is doing better. But it is sad to see stories like this.

    •  I'm on the Eastern Shore (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Larsstephens, JamieG from Md

      and have a special interest in open meetings.

      Actually, I picked this particular item because I don't know anyone there; don't write about anyone there; and was alerted to the situation through a news report.

      I don't talk to anyone there. I don't know a thing about the situation except from what the paper reported (two short articles, not very detailed) and what the commr's minutes say.

      The point is to show that, contrary to state law (which is that citizens should be able to read minutes and understand the activities of their electeds through them) this is completely obscure.

      There should be, whic I forgot to mention, no necessity to file PIA/FOIA requests to get sufficient documentation of meeting topcis, discussions, decisions and actions.

      Thump! Bang. Whack-boing. It's dub!

      by dadadata on Thu Jun 07, 2012 at 05:42:01 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

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