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Berlin, Ocean Pines News Worcester County Bayside Gazette Logo Berlin, Ocean Pines News Worcester County Bayside Gazette


Meetings law manual a guidebook, not law

As Berlin’s mayor and Town Council discuss how not to run afoul of Maryland’s open meetings law again, it ought to be said that their two violations were more accidental than intentional.

It’s not as if they purposely scurried into some shadowy room and closed the door so they could scheme against the citizenry. They simply did not know where the line was between required public discussion and legitimate executive session material. It happens. A lot.

Town and county governments throughout the state frequently seek the privacy of executive sessions when discussion topics make it difficult for elected officials to speak candidly. That doesn’t make it right, and is a decision based on officials’ comfort levels rather than state law.

Generally, officials want to avoid embarrassing themselves or others, the possibility of public misunderstanding, or antagonizing the parties being discussed.

Despite these justifications, many of these sessions violate some aspect of the open meetings statute, which few public officials have read line by line. And even if they have, they probably didn’t follow up with their legal advisors about what the law means in precise terms.

But what the opening meetings law is not, as was asserted in the town’s most recent council meeting, is a constantly evolving legal requirement. It is what it is. As for the Open Meetings Compliance Board’s routine updates of the open meetings manual, which is a guide to the law, it’s  not because the law changes, but because governments fail to interpret the law correctly in many different ways.

In other words, the compliance board is not changing anything, but is simply looking at government’s varied justifications and saying, “No, you can’t do that either.”

The town’s violations are temporarily embarrassing, but little else. Still, if it wants to prevent that from happening again, the solution is for elected officials to forget the manual and learn for themselves what the law says and to then pepper their attorney with a host of what-ifs.