Ever since citizens have been more involved in local, state and national government, there has been a disturbing trend in government meetings.
It's called the closed session, closed work session, or closed meeting. It's when public entities decide to meet about public business out of the prying eyes of their constituents. And it seems to be happening more often than ever before.
In Maryland, we have the "Open Meetings Act." Here is a description of the reason and definition of this act from the Maryland Attorney General's web site:
Maryland's Open Meetings Act is a statute that requires many State and local public bodies to hold their meetings in public, to give the public adequate notice of those meetings, and to allow the public to inspect meetings minutes. The Act permits public bodies to discuss some topics confidentially. The Act's goals are to increase the public's faith in government, ensure the accountability of government to the public, and enhance the public's ability to participate effectively in our democracy. (Emphasis added by writer)
This web page defines how open meetings should be advertised and conducted. It offers citizens a spot to make complaints when they think their local governments have violated this act. While there is a provision for closed meetings, the State Act makes it clear that closed meetings should be the exception. The fifteen exceptions stated below are listed in the handbook provided by the States Attorney General's office.
Public bodies must construe the fifteen exceptions “strictly . . . in favor of open
meetings.” § 3-305(a). Public bodies should apply the exceptions in light of the Act’s stated
policy that public bodies’ meetings are to be open “except in special and appropriate
circumstances.” See § 3-102(c). As noted below, three exceptions—the procurement,
public security, and cybersecurity exceptions—may only be invoked after the public body
finds that a public discussion of the matter would cause certain types of harm.
And yet, though this exists, it seems that local and state governments have found a way to either ignore or bend the provisions of this act to suit their purposes.
As example of how public officials can blatantly violate rules, let's take a look at Oxford, a town of 650 residents on Maryland's Eastern Shore. Since November of 2022, the Commissioners, at the request of the Town Manager, held closed meetings on 11/15/2022, 1/24/2023, 05/23/2023, and 07/25/2023. The reasons given by the Town Manager in every instance were either "to discuss a personnel issue" or to "seek legal advice." It certainly is not coincidental that several of these dates aligned with the sudden "retirement" by the Town's popular Chief of Police of over thirty years.
What is strange about these requests for a "closed meeting" they were not executed according to the Act.
The Act demands that the request for a closed meeting be made by the "presiding officer" in an open meeting and the reason for the closed meeting must be stated. In the open session, the presiding officer must “make a written statement of the reason for closing the meeting.” § 3-305(d). In that statement, often called a “closing statement,” the presiding officer must additionally disclose the “topics to be discussed” and the statutory exception relied upon as authority for closing the meeting.
Also, the presiding officer must conduct a recorded vote—a vote for which each
member’s vote is specified—on a motion to close the meeting to the public. § 3-305(d)(1).
A member of the public may note an objection to the closing. Once the motion has passed, that subject, and only that subject, may be discussed in the closed meeting.
As far as this writer can determine, none of this was done on any of these requests.
Did the Commissioners get sloppy or did they think that no one would notice? After all, it is a small town and many citizens of a small town are not liable to know the process for calling for a closed meeting. And, the smaller the town, the more the people in charge think they can pull these unethical and illegal shenanigans.
It could be that some of the Commissioners don't know the rules. However, the newly elected President of the Commissioners has made it clear to Committees that any email or discussion between the members outside the meeting would be a violation of "the open meetings act." He even asked some participants if they had been "trained in the Open Meetings Act." Was he just testing the waters to see if he had to follow the rules? Perhaps.
It's much deeper than that. The "public servants" and the Town Office are comfortable keeping constituents ignorant about the business and decisions of the town and how they are made. They are using closed meetings as a way to continue doing what they want, when they want without the "consent of the governed." They collude with certain employees to obfuscate when and why decisions have been made.
This is a group who unilaterally appointed a losing candidate in the Commissioner's race to be a vacant Commissioner's seat without so much as a request for nominations or applications from the citizens of the town.
This is a group who was offended when people spoke out against some of their decisions. They thought they were in their own little kingdom. They are a group who is not fond of public input.
Luckily, change is coming. There is one elected official who speaks out against this disregard for the public. And, people in town are waking up.
Here's the thing. This is one little town on Maryland's Eastern Shore. How many other towns, cities, counties across the State are ignoring the Open Meetings Act? How many county and state elected boards hold closed meetings every single month?
This leads to too many opportunities for unethical and even illegal actions by these public officials. It leads to duly elected officials being bullied into silence and inaction by other officials and lawyers. It leads to abuses of the trust of the taxpayers. It needs to stop.
We, the citizens of our towns, our counties, this state, have been lazy. We've ignored the actions of these tyrannical public officials because it was just easier to ignore it and hope that someone else would handle it.
That time has come and gone. Go to this link and educate yourself about the Open Meetings Act in Maryland. You might be surprised about how much the act is being ignored.