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Commissioners Violated Open Meetings Act

The Board of Carroll County commissioners said they disagree with the ruling.

The State of Maryland Open Meetings Compliance Board has ruled that the Carroll County Board of Commissioners violated the Open Meetings Act by charging admission to its PlanMaryland: At the Crossroads forum in October.

Carroll County commissioners issued a press release on Wednesday stating that they "respectfully disagree" with the ruling. 

Last spring, the state revealed its plan for a statewide land-planning document called PlanMaryland. On Oct. 31, the Carroll County commissioners hosted a forum to discuss PlanMaryland. The commissioners invited five speakers from around the country and opened the meeting to the public at a cost of $25 per person, which caused controversy.

Some Carroll County citizens commented on Patch that the event was a violation of the Open Meetings Act because the commissioners were meeting outside of Carroll County, and charging a fee to citizens to attend. Carroll County resident Neil Ridgely filed a formal complaint with the Open Meetings Compliance Board following the event.

The board recently agreed with Ridgely that the commissioners violated the Open Meetings Act by charging a fee for citizens to attend what the board considers an open meeting.

According to the board's written opinion, the Carroll County deputy attorney argued that the event was not a meeting because county business was not voted on. The Compliance Board responded that the Open Meetings Act only requires that a public body meet for the "consideration or transaction public business," regardless of whether an actual vote takes place, to be considered an open meeting.

In the county's news release, the commissioners state that they disagree that the forum was a "meeting" as defined by law. They contend that no county business was transacted and the commissioners' decision to oppose PlanMaryland had been made at other public meetings in advance of the event where there was a $25 charge.

In the explanation of its decision, the Compliance Board referenced a Court of Appeals ruling which says, "It is...the deliberative and decision-making process in its entirety which must be conducted in meetings open to the public since every step of the process, including the final decision itself, constitutes the consideration or transaction of public business."

The Compliance Board also ruled that the meeting was not an "open session" because the general public's attendance was "conditioned on the receipt of an invitation or the payment of $25". 

The commissioners responded saying that the meeting was in fact open to the public. They argue that the cost to attend was simply to cover the costs of the lunch and that a video of the entire event was posted on the county website so that citizens could see it.

The Compliance Board said that the Open Meeting Act does not permit substitutes for the provision of access to the actual meeting. 

There were no penalties or consequences listed in the written opinion for violating the Open Meeting Act.

Bonnie Grady February 02, 2012 at 11:41 PM
This is very, very serious. These commissioners - Rothschild in particular - can try to blow this off by calling it a "very minor thing", but the truth is they broke the law! The Open Meetings Act was enacted to ensure that the public in involved in all phases of government. Now we have Rothschild and the others basically thumbing their noses at the Compliance Board which has found them in violation. So, Mr. Commissioner, if I get pulled over for a traffic violation, can I just say, "It's a very minor thing?" and expect no repercussion? No? Then what makes you think YOU are above the law?
Wearedoomedcc February 03, 2012 at 06:11 AM
If there is a way to skirt the law Richard Rothschild would be the one to find it. The state merely gave the CC BOC a slap on the wrist as far as I can tell. They really need to be penalized for their actions.
Ed February 03, 2012 at 10:52 AM
Look, I am the first to agree that this meeting was a sham. In my ideal world, they would not have held it at all. That said, quite frankly as a taxpayer, I'm more annoyed at Neil Ridgley on this one. They ONLY reason they charged people to attend this event is because Haven tried to insist that NO county tax dollars be used for this. The fact that $3,600 was used outrages far more than this lame open meetings violation. It was not done in secret and anyone has had access to all the porceedings on cable. Hell, these guys weren't trying to hide this meeting; they are actually PROUD of it. But I'd be happier if they charged $50 dollars a head and used NONE of my tax money for this. By they way, when the coimmissioners give their annual state of the county address, isn't that at a meeting sponsored by a business group? Isn't there a charge to attend? Don't they discuss county business, including policy issues, at that event? Under this ruling, doesn't that mean our county commissioners have been routinely violating the law for decades based on this ruling?
Guillermo Humberto February 03, 2012 at 02:37 PM
Why wood u be annoyed at Neil Ridgely senor Ed.? He good man and wants CC to be a good county. With deese 5 commies duin what they are duin, somebody needs to keep check on dem. udderwise, dey do as dey dam well please. Dey need oversite as dey thumb der nose at da citizens every chance dey get!!!!!!
Neil Ridgely February 03, 2012 at 03:20 PM
I'm glad Ed brought the State of the County Address up because it highlights some of the key points found in the OMCB decision. Unlike the annual meeting Ed refers to The Commissioners are the ones who convened this meeting and decided to charge some citizens, but not all, who attended. From the list they created of people wishing to attend. just how they decided who would be allowed to attend and who not, and who would have to pay and who they allowed in for free was a very subjective process. When the Commissioners attend the State of the County or a MD Association of Counties event, those events are convened by another group. Anyone is welcome to attend the State of the County or even the annual economic development breakfast - but everyone is charged the same fee to cover the cost of the event. The Commissioners are not deliberating on an issue at the State of the County; they are performing their functions in giving a report, albeit some make a political soap box of the occasion. If I felt that the Commissioners were violating the Open Meetings Act in attending any other function I would file a similar compliant with the OMCB but have not because the other occasions are legally accepted practices which the Attorney Generals have ruled on in the past.
Neil Ridgely February 03, 2012 at 03:21 PM
I have not singled out this Board of Commissioners in my belief in Open, transparent government. This current BOC just seems to operate more secretively than others in recent memory. The OMCB also ruled against a previous Board of Commissioners in simultaneous filings both I and the Carroll County Times made in the 1990's about illegally closed meetings. My dedication to Open Government came to me when I first came to work for the County many years ago and found from my insider's perspective that some in our local government were determined to keep facts about a mining operation from the very citizens that were impacted by it. I saw it happen on more than one occasion and still see an attitude by some to protect the developers interest above those of citizens, commonly portrayed as NIMBYs because they care about their community character and property values. I wore an old fashioned skeleton key on my County ID badge throughout my career both as a talisman and daily reminder to dedicate myself to open government and the citizens I worked for. Frankly I am both surprised and appalled by the Commissioners reaction to this decision by the OMCB. Their Press Release on the decision shows defiance of the law and a will to snub the Open Meeting Act again in the future whenever they choose.I do not care what they think of me personally but I don't believe it is responsible for an elected body to defy a State Law that all other elected bodies recognize as fair and definitive.
Holly Hutchins February 03, 2012 at 05:22 PM
There is no charge to attend the State of the County address (this was changed a few years ago) it is hosted by the Carroll County Chamber of Commerce, at the Carroll Arts Center and has been sponsored by M&T Bank for a number of years now. It is free and open to anyone that wishes to attend. To me, it was a sad and interesting statement that there were many empty seats at this year's event.
ModerateinCC February 03, 2012 at 06:27 PM
I for one am very glad we have people like Neil Ridgely holding our BOC's feet to the fire. Rothschild's standard response seems to be things like, "If they don't like it, they can sue us," or "I guess we just need to ignore Neil Ridgely." He will be the first to pull out his pocket Constitution, but is also the first to thumb his nose at citizens and laws that he disagrees with. He needs to get down off his high horse and remember that he serves at the pleasure of the people. That's us, even when he disagrees with us. I am very glad to see the other commissioners beginning to part ways with him on certain issues. Seems like in the beginning they were just prepared to follow him right off the cliff.
Bonnie Grady February 03, 2012 at 07:39 PM
@ Ed: Here's a point to consider. When Rothschild makes the claim that they had to charge to cover the costs of the meals, he's lying. There were only a handful of people who paid to attend the event. Everyone else - the vast majority - were comp'd. So having the handful that they dared to charge pay $50 each would not have covered the cost of the event. Plus, and this is important, look at the financial documents. The meal costs were just a small part of the total. The hotel meeting room, the hired security guards, the unaccounted for and countless staff hours - those are the real costs. The meal expenses were negligible. Rothschild lies again. And liars always slip up and get caught because they can't keep up with their own lies. He's a textbook case. I don't know how the man sleeps at night.
Buck Harmon February 03, 2012 at 11:15 PM
So what will come of this obvious violation of the law.... is that it, or will there be some accountability exercised. If they ignore the law, what kind of example is being set for our youth?
Buck Harmon February 05, 2012 at 04:40 PM
You would think that by having a lawyer as a commissioner they could avoid blatantly breaking the law. I'd love to here Shoemaker's take..
Wearedoomedcc February 06, 2012 at 07:03 AM
Buck, it seems that Mr .Shoemaker can be persuaded by Mr. Rothschild to go against what he was taught in law school about above and beyond the law. Also since they only received a slap on the wrist and no citizen would be willing to bring suit against them, the board once again gets away with pulling the wool over the eyes of the county residents.
Bonnie Grady February 06, 2012 at 12:32 PM
But wouldn't you think they would care - at least a little bit - about how these secret meetings and other stunts are making them look? I guess none of them are planning to seek reelection.
Buck Harmon February 06, 2012 at 03:09 PM
I think they are in so far over their heads that they are oblivious the the results of these kinds of actions.... how's that for giving the benefit of doubt..? It's a shame that plurals have to be used on the words kind and action above.
JoeEldersburg February 07, 2012 at 02:38 AM
They have acted like they are above the law since elected, so it is not surprising that they continue to ignore it and show disrespect for anyone who publicizes it. Oh and you bet they will seek re-election, especially now that the delegation voted to keep the gerrymandered district map that is responsible for putting them in office. They lash out at the press and anyone who disagrees with them as having a political agenda, while they collude in secret and grandstand publicly on every conservative issue they can for the Tea Party dopes. They are only interested in politics and rewarding their supporters. Their recent actions to outwardly support a faith-based approach to blocking gay marriage is further evidence of their serving the interests of only those who agree with them. The rest of us don't matter.

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