The Frederick County Council violated the Maryland Open Meetings Act during two closed sessions in August, the Maryland Open Meetings Compliance Board has ruled.

According to the board’s opinion, which Council President M.C. Keegan-Ayer (D) acknowledged during a meeting Tuesday, the council failed to provide "any meaningful information" about the topics discussed in closed session as part of its meeting summary, and the body failed to maintain adequate closed-session minutes.

“The Council states that it complied with the Act’s disclosure requirements ‘in such a way as to not compromise the confidentiality of the discussion,’” the board’s opinion reads. “While we appreciate the need to keep the details of closed sessions confidential, we nonetheless find that the Council violated the Act by failing to adequately document and provide the public any meaningful information about the topics discussed.”

During the first of the closed meetings, which took place Aug. 16, the council went into closed session to “consider a matter that concerns the proposal for a business or industrial organization to locate, expand, or remain in the state and to consult with counsel to obtain legal advice,” according to minutes from the meeting.

All seven council members voted to go into closed session and, according to the minutes, the council didn’t take any action.

The Compliance Board’s opinion, which was published Monday, came in response to an initial complaint filed Sept. 13, Assistant County Attorney Catherine Keller said in an email. Keller said she was unable to provide the complainant's name because their information wasn’t included in the board’s opinion.

Keegan-Ayer said she was confused by the complaint given that the body didn’t vote or take any action during the closed meeting.

“It was just an informational meeting, that’s it,” Keegan-Ayer said. “And I think that’s why we’re all kind of perplexed.”

Joining council members and their staff at the meeting were County Executive Jan Gardner (D) and Helen Propheter, director for the county’s Office of Economic Development.

Based on the meeting minutes, there were 13 individuals at the meeting who don't appear to be part of county government. A Google search showed that at least six of the names -- Michael Punke, Tony Burkart, Becky Ford, Garrett Jansma, Keith Klein and Matt Mincieli -- match LinkedIn accounts of Amazon Web Services, Inc. officials in such departments as economic development, real estate acquisition and development, environmental policy and public policy.

Keegan-Ayer declined to comment when asked whether Amazon officials attended the Aug. 16 closed session meeting.

On Aug. 24, the council again went into closed session to “consider a matter that concerns the proposal for a business or industrial organization to locate, expand, or remain in the state.” An individual named Patrick Schempff provided testimony, according to meeting minutes. The meeting adjourned less than 20 minutes after going into closed session.

The Compliance Board’s opinion is an advisory only, Keller said in her email, meaning the County Council is only required to acknowledge and provide a summary of the opinion at its next meeting -- which Keegan-Ayer did on Tuesday.

Keegan-Ayer said the council won’t go back and change minutes from a meeting that already happened, especially given that changes would be reliant on the memory of those in attendance. She said the body will work to provide more detailed accounts of future closed meetings.

Follow Jack Hogan on Twitter: @jckhogan

(24) comments

TomWheatley

I forgot to add the land at the 70/75 interchange as a nice spot for a data center. Lots of open spaces there, but not as cheap as getting it from a backdoor rezoning of conservation land. Does the Sugarloaf land even have the sizable power lines that will be needed? Do we cut a right of way for some more power lines and add a substation in as well?

At lease the Eastalco and 'Jefferson' sites have the infrastructure in place.

matts853

There’s already a data center slated for Eastalco.

https://www.datacenterdynamics.com/en/news/quantum-loophole-buys-2100-acre-property-in-frederick-county-maryland-for-gigawatt-data-center-campus/

TomWheatley

Thanks for the update. Lots of open land at the EastAlco site for an additional data enter.

Piedmontgardener

This is exactly the stuff that sunk the Young board - sleazy hidden activities and dealing without consult and advice of the citizenry. Very disappointed in this - and great reporting on it. Amazon isn't special and that land surely is. Perhaps we might weigh our local resources with a a bit more reverence than prostitute out the land for one of the world's giant corporations. They can build this on flat land in Kansas. It should not be there and these flagrant violations of the open meeting requirement show the current board has lost its way.

Dwasserba

“The Compliance Board’s opinion is an advisory only…” ? So basically no consequences unless the story is considered newsworthy and probably not then either? Just a “heads up, not a good idea in our view” ? To which the response is, “no comment.” Oh.

Plumbum

You nailed it. But, the finding from this compliance board can be useful for a plaintiff on a civil case against the county.

Plumbum

A problem I see with boards. I know Steve knew better than this. But, these boards all get together and the members lose track that they can speak up and denounce any unethical actions that the board is about to engage in.

Frayou

I’m sure the topic of the Sugar Loaf property along West side of 270 was not a topic. This is why local residents become so frustrated with politicians. Thought Young administration policies were voted out and there would be changes. (Superintendent Gardner?). All politicians are corrupt. There was a time those running for government had the good of the voter concern. More about there own self interests and business connections.

matts853

There’s nothing inherently wrong with government officials having initial meetings in private with respect to prospective business deals. It happens all the time. Yes, the council clearly made procedural mistakes - but that’s all they were. I think overall they operated in good faith and in the best interests of the County. There’s nothing in the opinion that hints to any nefarious horse trading, and certainly not anything that comes remotely close to personal enrichment as others have suggested in their comments. They are good people, as is the CE and the administration.

I read the entire opinion, and another thing the council had to do, which they’ve now done, was to certify members trained in the open meetings act. My guess is that over the decades the process of going into closed session becomes ritualistic based upon past practices, and intimate knowledge of all the rules gets watered down. So I’m not bothered by the violations - I chalk it up to a learning experience.

What I am bothered about is this apparent nature of the deal. I’m opposed on principle to developing a data center west of 270 for the reasons I stated below. So I’m not questioning the integrity of our government, but rather the judgement, and perhaps that’s not entirely fair without all the facts. Now, the opinion did state that no votes were taken on whatever business was discussed. So who knows what may come from all this?

matthewboh

I wonder if any of these "elected" officials ended up with a REALLY nice car, vacation home, or other luxury item soon after this "closed" meeting.

OR a really big campaign donation or many small campaign donations from made up LLC's ...which in turn can be used to buy any one of the above...there are many ways to show your appreciation to your local politician that did you a solid... follow the money it does usually lead to the truth.

TomWheatley

Excellent job of reporting, Mr. Hogan!!

"Based on the meeting minutes, there were 13 individuals at the meeting who don't appear to be part of county government. A Google search showed that at least six of the names -- Michael Punke, Tony Burkart, Becky Ford, Garrett Jansma, Keith Klein and Matt Mincieli -- match LinkedIn accounts of Amazon Web Services, Inc. officials in such departments as economic development, real estate acquisition and development, environmental policy and public policy.

Keegan-Ayer declined to comment when asked whether Amazon officials attended the Aug. 16 closed session meeting."

economic development: Expand Amazon wherever possible

real estate acquisition: Get some cheap land not currently for sale

Real estate development: Rip out the trees from a pristine forest

environmental policy: Find ways to justify getting the environmental permits

public policy: Conduct a CYA campaign after the fact

How about offering the land at the EastAlco site? Or maybe get some tax dollars from some actual technology by placing the data center at the so-called Jefferson Technology Park, aka Jefferson Housing Development?

Plumbum

[thumbup][thumbup]

threecents

Interesting story. I wonder how it will play out. I have always been conflicted about open meeting rules - balancing the needs for privacy and speaking frankly vs the needs to limit backroom deals and good old boy networks. I wonder what Amazon wanted and whether they got what they wanted.

matts853

They wanted to build a data center on the 490 acres (mostly owned by Natelli) that have been excluded from the Sugarloaf Treasured Landscape Plan. This land is adjacent to 270, south of the rt 80 exit and runs in between 270 and Thurston Rd south to Bennett Creek.

I understand that governments are in the business of bringing in business, but it’s unconscionable to me that the administration was willing to abandon 50 years worth of comprehensive planning which explicitly reserved this land in order to protect and preserve: the Monocacy River; Bennett Creek; farmland; forest; Sugarloaf; and the general rural heritage of Frederick County that lies west of 270, just so they could pride themselves on bringing < 100 jobs from Amazon to the County. Take all that into consideration along with climate change and I just don’t see how this deal is principled. It’s in our long-term best interest to keep this land as is. And as far as Mr. Natelli is concerned, he bought this land knowing that it was not slated for development under the comprehensive plan. And he knows that in order to salvage any hope of developing it that he needs to keep it out of the Sugarloaf Plan that would preserve it as long as it’s in effect. IMO, he made a speculative investment that I hope he misses on. Enough is enough. Otherwise, where does the pavement end?

tatt2ed

Matt, I understand your logic and concern. I, also, understand the need for the state / county / locality to bring in business(es). While an Amazon data-center will require fewer than 100 full time employees, there is the infrastructure employment, the construction employment... Honestly, I would probably enjoy the opportunity to work at a data-center in Frederick county opposed to making the drive south.

MY opinion only.

TomWheatley

You don't need 490 acres for a data center. What else is getting dropped in there? Maybe housing for the workers so they can have a short commute?

phclar1

Is it confirmed that they want to develop “exuded” land west of 270? I thought that had not been confirmed. I also thought the the issue of Sugarloaf “exclusion” had not been settled…? If my rep voted for it, I’m going to be furious- McDonald stated he heard a lot of opposition to the plan.

matts853

Phclar1, the plan is before the planning commission now for discussion and workshops. They will hold a public hearing likely in January or February, after that it will go to the County Council for more works shops and public hearing. My understanding is that the Planning Commission intends to include the land in the plan. I suggest you write to them and Councilman Donald to have your questions answered more fully.

Plumbum

Can someone post a link to the open meetings act? I searched, but could only find outdated copies. Preferably not from a law firms’s webpage. I’m wondering how Maryland defines who / what falls under jurisdiction of the act (unrelated to county gov’t).

FlyFisherman

https://www.marylandattorneygeneral.gov/Pages/OpenGov/OpenMeetings/default.aspx

All elected boards fall under the open meeting requirements.

Plumbum

Thank you

marinick1

[thumbup][thumbup] FlyFisherman, you're correct; however, the open-meetings rules also apply to non-elected Boards such as the Frederick Community College Board of Trustees. [smile]

Plumbum

That’s kinda along the lines of what I’m trying to learn about.

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