Two bills which would give the Open Meetings Act more bite have passed the Government Operations Subcommittee, according to MarylandReporter.com.
Several weeks ago members of the Open Meetings Compliance Board testified in Annapolis that some entities found to be in violation of the Act disregard the violation because there are no real consequences. If the proposed bills pass, violators face penalties that include making the violation public as well as potential fines.
Del. Dan Morhaim, a Baltimore County Democrat and the sponsor of HB 331, said the legislation may force government entities to take the Act more seriously. It would require government bodies to publicly announce that they violated the Open Meetings Act whenever the Board ruled against them, according to MarylandReporter.com.
HB 331 would also allow the board to introduce testimony in court if an agency was sued for having closed meetings. Under current law, the maximum fine a judge can impose is $100, but if the bill passes, the penalties would increase to a $1,000 minimum and a $10,000 maximum.
According to the Open Meetings Act Compliance Board's website, there were four complaints filed against the Carroll County board of Commissioners between 2010 and 2012.
The Open Meetings Act Compliance Board found the commissioners to have violated the Act in two of those complaints - one for charging admission to the commissioner-sponsored PlanMaryland Forum and the other for failing to properly announce closed meetings.
In a statement released following one of the Compliance Board findings, Commissioner Doug Howard said, "The simple fact is that this Board of Commissioners respects and practices open government. We set policy as a result of open debate, public votes and public disclosure."
Additionally, in 2012 there were two complaints filed against the Carroll County Utilities Advisory Council for failing to post meeting minutes in a timely manner and for failing to make all of its Council members aware of the violation.
Read the full responses to these complaints on the Compliance Board's website.
Del. Justin Ready, a Carroll County Republican, expressed reservations about the penalty increases at Thursday’s subcommittee meeting saying taxpayers would ultimately pay the fines. According to MarylandReporter.com, Ready said he was comforted by the addition of an amendment requiring judges to consider a violator's ability to pay when calculating fines.
The two bills, HB 139 and HB 331, will now be considered by the House Health and Government Operations Committee.
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