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.