Board to investigate City Council meetings

May 13, 1999|By DAN KULIN /Staff Writer

The Maryland Open Meetings Compliance Board has been asked to investigate whether Hagerstown's Mayor and City Council held four illegal closed-door meetings involving budget discussions.

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Former Hagerstown City Councilman Ira P. Kauffman Jr. asked the compliance board to look into the closed budget meetings, said Kimberly Ward, an assistant attorney general at the board office in Baltimore.

"Things should be discussed in open so we know how they made the decisions that they did," Kauffman, who was a council member from 1977 to 1981, said Thursday.

"I hope to have the mayor and council debate in open unless it is a detailed individual personnel problem," he said.


The mayor and city administrator on Thursday received notice of the complaint from the board and were given 30 days to respond, Ward said.

Kauffman said a claim by Mayor Robert E. Bruchey II that the mayor and council had agreed to $775,000 in budget cuts during those closed meetings made him suspicious of the closed meetings.

"In reality the only cuts seen were cutting the one part-time position and not filling several other positions," Kauffman said.

Officials said the staffing cuts would save the city about $265,000.

"I think they discuss much more in these secret meetings than we're told," Kauffman said.

In March, Bruchey and City Councilman J. Wallace McClure said money-saving options discussed during closed sessions included cutting unfilled but budgeted staff positions, postponing purchases or construction projects and raising the trash collection fee, which eventually was proposed.

"You could mention every issue that's been brought up in the past year and it is something we have discussed," McClure said in March. "We have to have these in executive session so we can discuss freely all the sensitive issues that can be discussed."

"Without having read the complaint, I feel comfortable that, based on consultations with the city attorney, we have followed the intent of the open meetings law," City Administrator Bruce Zimmerman said Thursday.

Bruchey said the city attorney's advice has been that the closed meetings were legally permitted to be closed.

Mark Boyer, a city attorney, deferred questions to the city administrator.

The three-member compliance board will review the complaint and the city's response and issue an opinion on the matter, Ward said.

The board could find that there was a violation, that there wasn't a violation, or that the board cannot determine if there was a violation of the Open Meetings Act, she said.

Board members could request additional documentation, including agendas and minutes of meetings. Or they could decide to hold an informal hearing on the matter, Ward said.

Under Maryland's Open Meetings Act, legislative bodies are permitted to vote to hold closed meetings for 14 specific reasons. Those reasons include discussions of most personnel matters, pending or potential lawsuits and to obtain legal advice.

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