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August 1, 2003

It's a Question of Business

David 'Kip' Koontz

This week the Frederick County Commissioners were found guilty of breaking Maryland's Open Meeting Act by closing a meeting in March where they discussed taxes, ordinances and policies.

The infraction occurred when the commissioners met in an all-day session to work on the 2003-2004 "strategic plan," according to the Open Meetings Compliance Board.

The odd thing about it is that though the commissioners were found to be in violation of the act, there is no action that can be taken to punish them in order to help convince them not to close meetings from public view in the future, as the board only issues advisory opinions and has no power to impose fines or other penalties.

William Varga, Maryland assistant attorney general who represents the panel, is quoted as saying: "If the public body wants to thumb its nose at the opinion, there's not a thing the board can do about it."

Commissioners President John "Lennie" Thompson is reportedly "embarrassed" by the ruling.

Good! He should be.

Thing is, although he didn't vote to close the meeting, he did criticize the compliance board's ruling. Odd.

Seems that some of what got the commissioners in trouble, according to the panel's findings, was their discussion of the possible establishment of a hotel/motel tax, a transfer tax on real estate, and updates to the zoning and adequate public facilities ordinances.

The Compliance Board stated that: "Because these aspects of the discussion were closed to the public without justification of the Act, the County Commissioner's violated the Act."

Curiously, County Attorney John Mathias, who advised the commissioners that it would be legal for them to close the meeting, didn't attend the meeting.

It might have helped if he had. The meeting allegedly had no agenda and he might have advised the commissioners not to discuss topics that were "off limits" in a "closed to the public" meeting.

While the thinking may be that "brainstorming," or discussing upcoming issues of importance could be done, should be done, in a closed session so that members of the elected body could discuss ideas in a kind of less restricted manner, that isn't what happened at that meeting.

It seems that the March discussion helped propel many items forward on the commissioner's agenda for the 2003-04 year - to the point that the strategic plan they discussed that day is to some day be released to the public.

Curiously, the plan has not yet been made public though it is for the fiscal year that started July 1, 2003 - making not only the discussion "closed to the public," but the plan itself "closed to the public."

Way back when, when it was decided to vote to close the meeting, Commissioners Thompson and Mike Cady voted against closure because they feared doing so would undermine the public's confidence in the strategic plan.

That, coupled with the fact we have not yet seen it, should indeed raise some questions about the confidence the public should have in the plan and in the way the commissioners sometimes do business.

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