Open Meetings Enforcement Bill Moving Through General Assembly

Legislation that would provide some additional “teeth” to Maryland’s Open Meetings Act (HB 331 / SB 826) is moving through the General Assembly with amendments acceptable to MACo.  As introduced, the bills: (1) required a public body found in violation of the Act to announce the violation at the public body’s next open session; to announce if it violated the Act; (2) transferred the burden of paying a civil penalty for a willful violation of the Act from an individual member of the public body to the public body; and (3) increased the civil penalty from $100 to $1,000 for the first violation and $10,000 for a subsequent violation within 3 years.

MACo raised concerns over the severity of the bill’s enhanced civil penalty and argued against transferring the payment requirement to the public body, at least without some additional protections.  As a result of MACo’s concerns the sponsor of HB 331, Delegate Dan Morhaim, amended the bill to reduce the penalty to $250 for a first offense and $1,000 for a second offense within 3 years and required the court to take into consideration the ability of a public body to pay the fine.  Additionally, the bill clarified that an announcement of a public body of a violation did not constitute an admission of guilt for purposes of imposing a civil penalty and that a court could not considered as evidence.

The bill passed the House of Delegates by a vote of 125-10 on March 5.  A March 6 Maryland article noted one delegate’s concerns regarding the amended bill:

In floor debate, Del. Liz Bobo, D-Howard, who had introduced her own open  meetings legislation, said the bill applied the fines to the public body, rather  than its individual members. This meant that any fines would have to be paid by  the taxpayers who were denied access to the meeting in the first place.

Morhaim conceded that the bill as amended did not achieve everything he had  hoped, but that was the nature of compromise in the legislature.

The Senate Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs Committee heard SB 826 on March 7 and the bill’s sponsor, Senator Allan Kittleman, offered the same amendments that the House accepted for HB 331.  MACo supported the amended bill.

A separate bill introduced by Delegate Tony O’Donnell (HB 139) that requires a public body to designate an individual member or employee to receive training on open meetings law has also passed the House.  The bill specifies that one of the ways to meet the training requirement is by taking the open meetings course offered by MACo and MML through the Academy for Excellence in Local Governance.  MACo did not express any concerns with the bill.

MACo’s Testimony for HB 331 & SB 826