Twice, Frostburg watchdog was right

March 12, 2006|By Andrew Schotz

William Russell challenged his city council on a confusing open government statute and won.

In 2002, the Frostburg City Council in Allegany County, Md., met privately one day. Then, at a public meeting the next day, the council announced a change in the government chain of command.

As a citizen, Russell objected.

At the time, the city council called its private meeting an executive session to discuss specific employees. But, in a letter to the state's Open Meetings Compliance Board, the council changed course and said the discussion was covered by the state's executive function clause.

The compliance board, an independent body whose opinions carry no force of law, said Russell was correct: The council's discussion about the government's structure didn't fit into executive function.


Under the executive function clause, government bodies may meet privately, without alerting the public, to conduct administrative business.

This, though, was more of a policy deliberation, the compliance board ruled.

Although executive session and executive function seem and sound similar, one distinction is that government bodies must notify the public before holding an executive session, but not before meeting under the executive function clause.

As an indication of how confusing the provision is, Russell said in an interview this month that he thought executive function covers personnel matters and contracts.

Actually, "personnel matter" and "contract" are part of the exemptions listed for executive session.

Russell, the president of the Frostburg Landlords Association, officially challenged the city once before, on a closed session in 1993 - and also won.

In that case, there was an improper discussion about amending the city's Rental Housing Code during an executive session, the compliance board ruled.

Despite his two-for-two record in open meetings challenges, Russell said he's an observer, but not an open government expert.

"I just like to stay abreast," he said.

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