The ACLU of Maryland and RISE Coalition of Western Maryland filed a Maryland Open Meetings Act complaint Tuesday, arguing that Sheriff Chuck Jenkins (R) and his office should hold annual public meetings related to the county’s 287(g) program.
Those familiar with state open meetings laws, however, question whether the sheriff’s office is subject to any requirement to conduct public meetings.
Jenkins believes his agreement with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) doesn’t require meetings, while ACLU representatives assert that there is prior case law that suggests otherwise.
The 287(g) program is an agreement between the sheriff’s office and ICE. It provides training for sheriff’s deputies by ICE and allows deputies to inquire about the immigration status of anyone booked into the county’s adult detention center and then begin deportation proceedings if appropriate.
The complaint, sent to the state’s Open Meetings Compliance Board, asserts that “the 287(g) agreement between ICE and the Frederick Sheriff creates a public body subject to the Open Meetings Act.” It cites a 2016 memorandum of agreement (MOA) between the sheriff’s office and ICE, stating that the steering committee that participated in informational meetings in the past is a public body and is subject to the Open Meetings Act.
Part of that MOA, however, states that the sheriff’s office “will, as necessary, engage in Steering Committee meetings and may engage in other community outreach with individuals and organizations expressing an interest in this MOA.”
Nick Steiner, an attorney for the ACLU who co-filed the complaint, said Friday that even though there is “as necessary” language in the MOA, that document and its mention of a steering committee is enough evidence that that body is a public one, subject to the state’s Open Meetings Act.
“Under the Open Meetings Act, an MOA is something that can create a public body, which is the issue, and the 287(g) MOA is outlining who is a part of this public body,” Steiner said.
Jenkins, however, defended his decision to cancel this year’s annual meeting, which typically occurs in June. He initially announced he was canceling the meeting in May.
He said a 2014 MOA between his office and ICE established the steering committee, which has met annually in a public setting since 2015.
He said he canceled this year’s meeting because the meetings have been unproductive in the past, including last year. He added that ICE sent him a written opinion stating that he is allowed to do so, given the conditions of the MOA.
“Because of how the opposition conducted themselves, the disrespect, the fact they were disorderly, disruptive ... I decided to cancel the meeting,” Jenkins said.
Jenkins’ office has 30 days from Tuesday to respond to the ACLU and RISE’s complaint, according to the Open Meetings Act. The state’s Open Meetings Compliance Board typically issues an opinion within 30 days after that, according to the attorney general’s website.
Rebecca Snyder, executive director of the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association, said that while Jenkins might not have violated the act, it’s in the spirit of the act to try to hold open meetings, in order to engage with citizens about issues that concern them.
“The Open Meetings Act is designed to allow and plan for accountability of public bodies to the citizens that are being affected by these decisions,” Snyder said. “The spirit of the law is, how do ordinary citizens have a voice in that process, and everyone generally accepts there are certain situations that might not be things discussed in open meetings, but we feel those are few and far between.”
Steiner said he’s optimistic that the compliance board would rule in the ACLU and RISE’s favor, given prior case law concerning how local government bodies become public when MOUs are created.
Jenkins said he’s not sure how the compliance board would rule, but added he’s open to hosting a public forum about the 287(g) program later this year. It’s possible that ICE and the sheriff’s office could hold future steering committee meetings, Jenkins said — but those details are still being discussed, he added.
“These were meant to be stakeholder meetings,” he said. “I’ve gone back to ICE to discuss how we might reconstruct those.”