By Len Lazarick
Bills to increase compliance with the Open Meetings Act by public bodies in Maryland and stiffen penalties for violating the law will get a hearing Thursday afternoon in the House Health and Government Operations Committee.
Back then, before the legislation was drafted and introduced, Morhaim, D-Baltimore County, said he wanted the Open Meetings Compliance Board to be able to fine public bodies that close meetings improperly from $1,000 to $10,000. The unpaid panel reviews complaints from the public and rules on whether public bodies have complied with the law, but it cannot issue fines, impose penalties or reverse actions on public business taken behind closed doors.
A state agency can’t fine other agencies
Morhaim said, after consulting with the assistant attorneys general who advise the legislature, he found that “a state agency can’t fine other state agencies” or the bodies formed by county and municipal governments.
“You have to go to court to get a fine,” Morhaim said, and as provided in current law, the person filing the complaint against the public body would have to file a lawsuit. But the fines a judge could grant under Morhaim’s bill would go up from $100 to $1,000 and up to $10,000.
In a meeting last week, the three-member Open Meetings Compliance Board voted to support Morhaim’s proposed changes to the law, according to minutes of the board’s Jan. 29 public meeting.
These include a new requirement that after the board had found a public body in violation, a member of that body would have to announce the violation at the next public meeting and orally summarize the opinion of the board. The chair of the compliance board, attorney Elizabeth Nilson, explained that “members of public bodies are not always told about the board’s opinion.”
The Morhaim bill also would allow the official opinion of the compliance board to be introduced in evidence at any legal proceeding, which is not permitted under current law.
Despite the change in the penalty provision, Morhaim said, “I still think [the bill] is a step in the right direction. Hopefully we’ll find some happy medium. There’s also next year to get more done.”
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Other bills require penalties and training
The board did not support a bill by House Minority Leader Tony O’Donnell, R-Calvert, that would have the board set up a range of penalties for bodies closing meetings improperly, but the board did support an O’Donnell bill that requires an online training course in the Open Meetings Act – already developed by the attorney general – and also requires some members or employees of the public body to take the online course.
The board also opposed Open Meetings legislation offered by Del. Liz Bobo, D-Howard, though it is not on Thursday’s hearing agenda. It would allow the attorney general or a county state’s attorney to file a petition with the circuit court if alerted to a violation or potential violation of the act. This bill takes the legal burden off of someone complaining about a closed meeting.
The compliance board also opposed another Bobo measure to fine individual members of a public body who participated in a meeting violating the act.