Maryland regents acknowledge failure to comply fully with open meetings law

MARYLAND — The University System of Maryland admitted last week that it failed to “strictly comply” with the state’s Open Meetings Act when deciding on a switch from the ACC to the Big Ten

In a letter submitted last week to the state’s Open Meetings Compliance Board, the university system acknowledged its board of regents did not properly vote to close two meetings held Nov. 18 and 19 or provide written reason for going into closed session. At the same time, the board defended its decision to discuss the move in secret.

The university’s letter, submitted by Assistant Attorney General Thomas Faulk, was in response to two official complaints filed with the compliance board from Ralph Jaffe, a 2012 candidate for governor of Maryland, and Craig O’Donnell, a local journalist.

Jaffe accused the board of holding an illegal vote on the move in closed session. O’Donnell’s complaint accused university officials of not providing proper notice of the meeting and of failing to keep proper minutes.

Faulk, who notes in the letter that he advised the board that it could meet in closed session, asked the compliance board to dismiss Jaffe’s complaint, saying that the board did not vote on the move in closed session but rather “endorsed a decision already made” by Maryland President Wallace Loh prior to the two board meetings. As president, Loh had the authority to make the decision without the board’s approval.

Because a board vote was not necessary, Faulk called the practical need for an official notice “diluted.” Faulk wrote that O’Donnell’s charges against the board were “at worst technical, as the press and public were aware of those meetings before they occurred and reported on them in near-real-time.”

The “growing intensity of press coverage” of the contract’s details factored into making a hasty, private decision, according to the letter. Requiring the board to discuss the potential conference switch in open session would “effectively handcuff UMD and place it at a tremendous disadvantage relative to its peers,” Faulk wrote.

O’Donnell, a reporter for The Kent County News, filed his complaint with the compliance board in December after following news reports of the meeting.

“I happened to see the news reports about everybody running around trying to find the meetings and track people down, and I went, ‘Hmmm, that looks interesting,” O’Donnell said. “I felt they were doing something wrong. Lo and behold, they were kind of making it up as they went.”

O’Donnell called the board’s response a more elaborate “rehashing” of the statement it issued in December that first acknowledged violating the notice and closing procedures for public meetings. Maryland’s Open Meetings Act allows executive session for sensitive matters, but it requires a public motion and vote to close the session as well as a written statement for doing so, which the university system did not provide.

In the future, the university system will “redouble its efforts” to provide notice of meetings “as is practicable” and will take care to close sessions properly, Faulk wrote.

Although the compliance board’s opinion is strictly advisory — it has no authority to issue orders or impose penalties — O’Donnell said public bodies “typically adjust” if the board officially finds them in violation of the law.

O’Donnell said public notice of meetings on one hand may seem trivial to some.

“On the other hand, it’s fundamental, and I guess I’m surprised that the confusion is so widespread through state and local government,” he said.

By Daniel Moore, SPLC staff writer. Reach Moore by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 127.