Compliance board finds problems with Maryland regents' closed meetings

MARYLAND — The University System of Maryland’s Board of Regents needs to be more discerning about when and why they hold private meetings, the state’s Open Meetings Compliance Board said.

The opinion, issued in July, was in response to two complaints filed by Kent County News reporter Craig O’Donnell, who felt the system’s board repeatedly violated the Maryland Open Meetings Act last year, including when the regents voted to accept an invitation for the University of Maryland to join the Big Ten conference.

The Open Meetings Act lays out guidelines for notice and documentation of meetings, as well as rules about how to properly move into a closed session and what business may be handled in closed sessions.

O’Donnell had accused the regents of improperly closing meetings under the act’s “administrative function” exclusion, which generally allows public bodies to close their meetings except when performing functions that are basically advisory, judicial or legislative in nature. In its January response, the regents acknowledged they had failed to “strictly comply” with the act in some instances.

“In many instances, the information available to us is insufficient to say whether a violation occurred,” the opinion states. “In others, however, the minutes reflect policy discussions that travelled well beyond the exclusion for mere ‘administrative matters.’ In those events, the USM Board and some of its committees violated the Act by meeting in ‘executive’ session without observing the notice and closed session procedures set forth in the Act.”

In an email statement provided by Media Relations and Web Manager Mike Lurie, the University System of Maryland said compliance is the regents’ goal.

“The July 9 opinion of the Maryland Open Meetings Compliance Board urges the USM Board of Regents and its standing committees to continue to review their closing procedures, including the administrative functions exclusion and how it applies to the full board and its standing committees,” the statement reads. “The USM Board of Regents will continue in its future operations to strive for full compliance with this and all aspects of the Maryland Open Meetings Act.”

O’Donnell said his complaint was driven by the public’s right to know what happens in the board’s meetings.

“Public business is public business, and if you’re not giving the information out and you’re not making decisions in front of the public on public business, then it’s not public business,” O’Donnell said. “That’s not the way the country is set up.”

However, non-compliance doesn’t tend to gain much recognition in the media if it isn’t tied to something flashy like sports, O’Donnell said.

“It’s really up to individual reporters and individual lawyers and people who are interested in local and state government,” O’Donnell said. “It’s really up to them to sort of carry that forward.”

For student journalists who want to know whether their school board complies with their state’s Open Meetings Act, O’Donnell suggests looking into online training. The Maryland Attorney General’s Office offers a class online, for example.

Students should also understand that in states like Maryland, the Open Meetings Compliance Board doesn’t investigate complaints, O’Donnell said. Instead, the board reviews the evidence supplied by the complainant and asks the accused for a response and evidence.

“You need to try to piece together something that supports your suspicion,” O’Donnell said. “You don’t have to have iron-clad evidence on the one hand, but on the other you have to do your best to give the compliance board as much to go on as it can.”

By Sara Tirrito, SPLC staff writer. Contact Tirrito by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 124.