Open Meetings Board: One-By-One Calls Not a “Meeting”

The Open Meetings Compliance Board issued a decision regarding a body reaching agreement via a series of one-to-one phone calls: those calls did not constitute an actual meeting, and did not violate the Open Meetings Act.

The Maryland Open Meetings Act seeks to provide public access to decisions by public bodies. From the Attorney General’s website:

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.

The Open Meetings Compliance Board is impaneled to review complaints about the Act, and to determine whether violations have occurred. In July of this year, a Board opinion regarding a series of email and phone communications by the Talbot County Council set many local governing bodies abuzz – did their ruling mean that virtually any set of discussions, even without a quorum present at one time, could still constitute a “meeting” under this law?

See previous Conduit Street coverage: What Counts as a Meeting? You Might Be Surprised…

transparency

So, a recently-released opinion from the Compliance Board, dealing with similar subjects (a body, the Council of the Town of Greensboro, that reached agreement on several procedural matters through a series of phone calls conducted by its professional staff) attracted understandable attention from local governments, still seeking clarification on the state guidance for public meetings. From the opinion, formally citable as 13 Official Opinions of the Compliance Board 47 (2019), comes this conclusion, with a quick note about its application and propriety:

Here, the submissions show only that the Town manager sent an email to the members and that they spoke with her, one by one, apparently without any interaction or discussion among themselves about the merits of the draft policy. These facts do not establish that a quorum of the Council ever convened to deliberate on the policy, so we find that the Council did not “meet” and that the Act did not apply. Still, in such cases, we have hardly endorsed this method of conducting public business.

In its final summary, the Board again restates the narrow effect of this ruling, based on these facts and the law behind the body’s creation – and warns against overbroad interpolation from this holding:

On the basis of the facts before us, we find that a quorum of the Council did not convene to address the new policy. We thus conclude that there was no “meeting” to which the Act would have applied, and, therefore, that the Council did not violate the Act. We caution, as we have countless times before, that public bodies should avoid conducting public business by methods that deprive the public of the opportunity to observe the public body doing its work. We have also given advice on the limits of the administrative function exclusion.

County governing bodies, other entities subject to the Open Meetings Act, and their legal advisers across local governments remain engaged in advancing clarity on these matters. A collaborative event in the weeks ahead, involving the Office of the Attorney General, is expected to help advance this objective.

Read the full Compliance Board ruling online.

Michael Sanderson

Executive Director Maryland Association of Counties
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