Maryland regents acknowledge violating state's open meetings law by failing to give notice of two meetings

MARYLAND — Following complaints about how a vote to join the Big Ten conference violated the state’s open meetings law, the University of Maryland Board of Regents acknowledged it violated parts of the act when they failed to give notice of two meetings.

“The board and USM officials acknowledge and sincerely regret that the public notice and closing procedures required by the Maryland Open Meetings Act were not followed with regard to the two sessions,” the statement said.

In the statement, the board defended its action to vote on the move in closed session.

Ever since the school’s decision to leave the ACC became public, the school has fought off questions about its decision-making process. The school has said it acted with the state attorney general’s blessing, while others, including the Student Press Law Center, have raised concerns about the lack of notice and the board’s decision to vote in closed session.

Maryland’s open meetings law allows public bodies to close meetings for discussions about certain types of issues, including legal advice. It doesn’t allow votes in closed session.

Still, it is unclear whether the board’s approval was necessary or whether Maryland President William Loh could make the decision himself. In its apology, the board said it was important that, though not required, it showed its support for the move.

The board’s apology doesn’t address two complaints that were both filed with Maryland’s Open Meetings Compliance Board. 

Under Maryland law, the Compliance Board can (after giving the regents an opportunity to respond) issue an advisory opinion as to whether any laws were broken. But the Compliance Board cannot impose penalties.

Craig O’Donnell, a reporter for The Kent County News, filed a complaint Monday regarding the public summaries of the secret board meetings, which he believes left out key information.

Minutes from the secret meetings that took place on Nov. 18 and 19 lack specific information regarding the actions taken, the vote that occurred and the adjournment of the meeting was never recorded, O’Donnell stated in his complaint.

“I pretty much deliberately focused on minutes because I felt that was a piece that no one else was gonna catch,” O’Donnell said.

O’Donnell said he became suspicious when he requested records and the regents were unable to produce them quickly.

“The information that a public body should generate at the time of a closed meaning is really very specific and also needs to be right at hand,” he said. “ They ought to be able to fax them within a day. The way it was handled and the really vague answers they gave in their televised press conference, all those signs were pointing the wrong direction.”

Ralph Jaffe, a recent candidate for U.S. Senate and governor, also filed a complaint with the board, claiming that holding the meeting in secret violated the law.

“I’ll tell you what does matter is accountability here,” said Jaffe, a former political science teacher in Baltimore County public schools. “This is a state funded institution. This is not Notre Dame University, this is a state university. They have to be accountable to the people. And I resent the fact that they had these state negotiations and didn’t tell anybody about it.”

Leaving the ACC will likely cost the university a $50 million exit fee, although University President Wallace Loh said in a press conference that it is subject to negotiation. The ACC sued the school late last month in order to force the school to pay the full fee.

O’Donnell said the board’s statement does not rectify the actions it took before and after the meetings occurred. He said the board should know the proper way to record minutes and notify the public when a meeting is set to take place.

“I think any complaint and response and opinion in the end it will all speak for itself,” he said. “The truth of the matter is they’re responsible for knowing the basics.”

By Samantha Raphelson, SPLC staff writer. Contact Raphelson by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 126.