Frederick County’s attorney has written a letter defending three commissioners against allegations that they violated the Maryland Open Meetings Act by appearing together on a June radio program.
The July 25 letter addressed to the state’s Open Meetings Compliance Board asserts that by discussing county business on a WFMD broadcast, the commissioners were encouraging public discourse, not seeking to conceal their deliberations.
“The policy of the Open Meetings Act is that open and public performance of public business is essential to a democratic society and that citizens should be allowed to observe the performance of public officials,” county attorney John Mathias wrote. “An appearance on a radio program is not intended to circumvent the OMA but rather serves the very same policies as the OMA.”
Mathias’ letter came in response to a complaint filed in mid-June by former Frederick County planning commissioner Catherine Forrence and Washington County resident Kimberly Mellon. Forrence and Mellon asked the state compliance board to determine whether the June 15 radio program amounted to an Open Meetings Act violation.
Commissioners Billy Shreve and Paul Smith had agreed to appear on the program “Frederick’s Forum” to discuss the potential sale of two county-owned facilities, Citizens Care and Rehabilitation Center and Montevue Assisted Living. Commissioner Kirby Delauter phoned into the program at one point, creating a quorum of the five-person board of commissioners, Forrence and Mellon claim.
The county had not given citizens advance notice of the show, and only WFMD listeners heard the commissioners discuss county business, according to the complaints.
However, Mathias asserts that the radio appearances were not a breach of open meetings requirements.
Though Shreve and Smith were together at the radio station, Delauter was not physically present during the show, Mathias noted in his letter, a copy of which Mellon provided to The Frederick News-Post.
Mathias also noted that state law allows public officials to gather as long as they aren’t intending to sidestep the Open Meetings Act. He cited a case in which a quorum of New Carrollton City Council members attended a citizens association meeting to answer residents’ questions. The Maryland Court of Appeals found that the council members were not in violation because they were trying to reach out to residents, not to get around the law.
Mathias also argued that the radio program could not be considered a meeting.
“The three commissioners responded to questions and spoke independently but at no time did the three commissioners act as a public body,” he wrote. “Instead, they were individually responding to questions and providing their own individual views.”
The county initially was asked to submit a response to the compliance board by July 22. However, the board last week granted county officials an additional week to prepare their answer.
Follow Bethany Rodgers on Twitter: @BethRodgersFNP.