A state board has found three Frederick County commissioners violated the state’s Open Meetings Act when they discussed the sale of two county-owned facilities on a local radio program in June.
The five-page opinion dated Friday explains that Commissioners Paul Smith, Billy Shreve and Kirby Delauter were at fault because the county had not provided notice of the show.
“Although the three County Board members who participated in the radio broadcast clearly did not intend to conceal their discussion, the general public — not merely the radio station’s usual audience — was entitled to reasonable advance notice that a quorum of the County Board would discuss legislative business then pending before it,” the opinion states.
The commissioners’ June 15 appearance on the WFMD show related to the potential privatization of Citizens Care and Rehabilitation Center and Montevue Assisted Living.
The county argued that far from avoiding transparency, the commissioners were encouraging open government by fielding questions from citizens over the airwaves. State law allows public officials to gather as long as they aren’t intending to sidestep the Open Meetings Act, the county attorney said.
However, this exemption to the act doesn’t apply to the June 15 radio appearance because commissioners “interacted on a pending issue,” the compliance board’s opinion stated. The board also noted that 10 days after the program, the commissioners voted to approve the sale of Citizens and Montevue.
The finding from the state’s Open Meetings Compliance Board is solely advisory, since the body cannot hand down penalties or orders, according to its website.
The initial complaint that three of five commissioners had run afoul of the Open Meetings Act was filed by Catherine Forrence, former member of the Frederick County Planning Commission.
Reached by phone Saturday, she said she hoped the opinion would encourage the commissioners to abandon their “cowboy ways.”
“This is another example that the majority of the county commissioners believe that they are above the law,” Forrence said.
Kimberly Mellon, a Washington County resident, also submitted a complaint about the radio appearance.
Smith said he was surprised by the compliance board’s finding and suspected that the strict reading of the Open Meetings Act would have far-reaching implications.
Delauter and Shreve said they thought the opinion was ridiculous.
Shreve pointed out that anyone could’ve listened to the radio show, “Frederick’s Forum,” and could access an archive of the program online.
He also said the commissioners never engaged in a three-way conversation, since only two at a time could participate in the discussion. The compliance board’s opinion will not change Shreve’s approach to talking about county business, and he said he feels the entire issue was a waste of time for government staff.
“This frivolous complaint has probably cost the taxpayers thousands of dollars,” he said. “It’s public radio. What could be more open than that?”
Delauter said he doesn’t believe he, Shreve and Smith violated state law.
Delauter was not present in the WFMD studio during the program, but called in to the show and was on-air for about seven minutes.
“I’m not going to lose any sleep on it,” he said of the compliance board’s decision.
Forrence said she hopes the conclusions reached by the compliance board will carry weight with the Maryland Board of Public Works, which is set to review the sale of Citizens and Monteuve on Aug. 21.
Follow Bethany Rodgers on Twitter: @BethRodgersFNP.