Two bills trying to increase compliance with Open Meetings Act were approved by the Government Operations Subcommittee Thursday.
One of the bills, HB 331, would increase enforcement powers of the Open Meetings Compliance Board, an unpaid panel that reviews complaints about closed meetings and determines whether there has been a violation of the Open Meetings Act. Another bill, HB 139, would mandate that some government employees take online training courses on the Open Meetings Act.
Both bills will now be considered by the entire House Health and Government Operations Committee.
In the past, the board’s opinions were often ignored, and censured agencies frequently did not reform their behavior after they were found in contempt of the Open Meetings Act.
Public bodies would have to announce violations
But Del. Dan Morhaim, a Baltimore County Democrat and the sponsor of HB 331, thinks that his legislation could ensure that the compliance board’s opinions are taken seriously. It would require government bodies to publicly announce that they violated the Open Meetings Act whenever the Board ruled against them.
Morhaim’s bill would also allow the board to introduce testimony in court if an agency was sued for meeting closures, and would substantially increase the amount of money that citizens could recover in these lawsuits. Under current law, the maximum fine a judge can impose is $100, but if HB 331 passes, the penalties would increase to a $1,000 minimum and a $10,000 maximum.
In fiscal 2012, the State Open Meetings Law Compliance Board received 28 complaints alleging violations of the act.
Del. Justin Ready, a Carroll County Republican, expressed reservations about the penalty increases at Thursday’s subcommittee meeting because taxpayers would ultimately wind up paying the fines.
However, Ready said that he did not want to hold up the progress of Morhaim’s bill because of this concern, and he said that his was comforted by the addition of an amendment requiring judges consider an agency’s ability to pay when calculating fines for meeting closures.