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Murphy’s Law — Your MDDC Update from Executive Director Jack Murphy for Sept. 26

Compliance Board says complaints improving
By Jack Murphy

The Open Meetings Compliance Board, at its annual meeting Friday in Baltimore, said it had received more substantial, complex complaints during fiscal year 2013, and from a wider variety of complainants than in previous years. It credited more attention and more coverage from the news media to the issue.

Some of the complaints this year pertained to numerous meetings over the course of a year or more, according to the board’s annual report. Two complaints involved multiple meetings by multiple committees of the same public body.

“So, it was a busy year,” said board chair Elizabeth L. Nilson.

The board resolved 32 complaints during FY 2013 (which ended June 30). It issued 24 opinions and dismissed three complaints as not within the board’s authority. It said it had received complaints from 21 different people or organizations, including seven media complaints.

Nilson said one of the most difficult areas involved complaints about public bodies closing meetings to perform “administrative functions,” which are not subject to the act, but also are not defined in the law. She said the board, with the help of Assistant Atty. Gen. Ann MacNeille, is working to define the administrative function exclusion on a case-by-case basis. But she added that, at some point, the legislature may have to attempt a definition.

The report said many complaints alleged violations of public notice requirements concerning open meetings, or of not making proper public minutes of closed meetings.

MacNeille said one issue the board was facing more frequently was public bodies meeting by conference call or other electronic media. A court case has clarified that the presence of public officials on a conference call can create a quorum, which triggers the open meetings act. But public officials can exchange emails on an issue over a period of time without creating a quorum, she said.

The board was pleased that the General Assembly passed two laws last session strengthening the act. One requires public bodies to designate at least one member to pass the Attorney General’s online course on open meetings. The online course has been updated and will be available starting Oct. 1, when the law takes effect.

The other for the first time requires members of public bodies to acknowledge in open meeting when the board finds that they have violated the act. The same law also allows the decisions of the board to be used as evidence if complainants file civil suits against the public bodies.

The board decided not to seek any changes in the act during the coming session. MacNeille said that the legislature intends to recodify the entire public information and public meeting sections of the law as a new general article, with new section numbers. The act currently is in the state government section, but the provisions apply to local government as well, so the act will be moved to the area of the state code dealing with general laws.

The annual report will be available soon at the compliance board’s website site, which is on the Attorney General’s site.
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