By Jack Chavez, Staff Writer
(April 13, 2023) Two weeks after receiving the second violation in two years from the Maryland Open Meeting Compliance Board, Berlin’s elected officials are making it known they’re not taking the matter lightly.
And they’d also appreciate it if residents cut them a little slack.
At the end of the mayor and council meeting on Monday, Councilmember Jack Orris broached the topic of the violation from two weeks ago when the compliance board notified the town that a January closed meeting regarding the Berlin Fire Company’s contract needed to be open to the public.
“It’s kind of coming clearer to me that the manual itself is sort of a living document. As the compliance board gets opinions, it seems they update it,” Orris said, pointing out that the last update was in October 2022.
“Since it seems to be updated fairly regularly, I would throw out as a suggestion that we have a copy of the manual with our financial disclosures every year. My point is it’s a living document. It’s changing. It’s adding opinions, citations. It’s adding clarification, in my opinion, on some things.”
Councilmember Shaneka Nichols supported the idea of staying up to date on the board’s opinions and asked if they could be notified when something changes.
“They are their own entity,” Town Administrator Mary Bohlen answered. “They do what they do. I would say this — there are so many documents that could be provided to you to keep you abreast of all the latest information. It’s a lot.”
Mayor Zack Tyndall added, on top of that, the board’s opinions are open for interpretation.
“Maybe the best practice is to bookmark that link (on the board’s website) and then you have the most recent version and you can consult it as appropriate,” he suggested.
Councilmember Dean Burrell, however, said it is incumbent upon the mayor and Town Council to keep themselves current on what they can and cannot do.
“Don’t forget the government can’t be all things and all people,” Burrell said. “There is a responsibility that we have to take. Information these days is so available. We all walk around with (smartphones) in our pockets or our computers, and we sometimes have to take the responsibility of searching for (answers) ourselves. I would prefer having that responsibility myself. I don’t need the (manual in my pocket).”
Nichols, agreeing with Orris’s take that the compliance board’s rules are ever-changing, said that the mayor and council aren’t infallible.
“My take on that is knowing, folks, that this is a live document that changes often, I’m not saying that we can’t be held accountable to an extent … I want you to understand that … there may be a time once and again where something may have slipped in there … that we didn’t see that (something) aligned and twisted to fit along with something that could be considered a complaint.
“We don’t sit here and say, ‘Let’s see what we can do here today.’ That’s not what we do. But do we get things wrong periodically? Yeah, we do. Especially with a live document.”
Tyndall said that he thinks the vast majority of the town’s personnel approach their jobs wanting to do the “best possible thing” for the people of Berlin.
“Nobody is out here trying to be nefarious,” he said. “Nobody is out here trying to circumvent the law. Nobody is trying to do things that are not above board.
“There are groups that oversee the work we do. The (compliance board) is an advisory group. We greatly appreciate their advice but sometimes they may advise that they may see or interpret things differently than we do. That is OK. There is a mechanism for that. But know that nobody up here is doing this in a way to circumvent the law or their opinions.”
Burrell added that the mayor and council must heed the concerns of its citizens to see out the best opinion possible on these matters.
“I want us to be receptive to those concerns that come,” he said.
Tyndall also pointed out that these matters often lead to valuable improvements, such as after the first violation a couple of years ago when the town was told that it had to ask for objections before going into closed session.
“We implemented those findings and it made the process better because we do solicit that objection that we aren’t trying to get to a point when we’re meeting maybe when we aren’t within the rights to meet,” he said.
“There are five of you that have to vote to go into closed session. That’s five different opinions on the board’s) opinions and regulation.”