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.