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Learn the law, become your own watchdog

June 02, 2012|Stuart Samuels

Does it strike you as alien to the concept of transparency in government that the city of Hagerstown can negotiate a lease with the Hagerstown Suns and discuss a new multipurpose stadium in comparative secrecy until a deal is secured, even though it will have obvious impact on local taxpayers?

That scenario is legal under the letter of the law in the Maryland Open Meetings Act, although there is still some question about whether the spirit of the act has been violated. But that is a more abstract question for another day.

The situation does, however, recommend an academic opportunity. Instead of merely cursing the darkness, engaged citizens now have at their disposal a way to at least light a candle.

In a joint effort undertaken by the Maryland Attorney’s General’s Office and the University of Maryland’s Institute for Governmental Service and Research, the state is offering an online class for citizens — as well as the media and government officials — on the nuts and bolts of how the state’s public meetings law works. 

The class, which includes six lessons and 10 quizzes, takes about 2 1/2 hours to complete, according to a news release from the attorney general’s office.

The two entities involved in the project vow to “keep the class content current” by including any changes in the law or by the courts, as well as the Open Meeting Compliance Board, or OMCB, which is charged with handling open meetings complaints in the state, the release said.

The Open Meetings Act, which was enacted in 1977, is supposed to foster transparency in government by theoretically balancing the right of citizens to be aware of what its state and local governments are doing, and the need for public bodies to keep some information confidential.

Therein lies the rub, of course. Many citizens — and most members of the media — seem to believe that just about everything a government does, especially when in involves taxpayer’s money in any conceivable way, should be conducted in the open, not behind closed doors.

Generally, however, government officials believe they need to conduct certain business, such as negotiating to buy land or discussing key personnel decisions, in private. They don’t want a competing bidder for the land to know what they are offering for it, and they don’t want to besmirch a candidate who is rejected for a job.

Striking a fair balance is the hard part, though. Sometimes, public meetings are closed that shouldn’t be, and sometimes they aren’t when they could have been under the law. Whether a body is public or not, whether a quorum of its members is present, and whether adequate summary minutes of a closed session are made available to the public are just some of the questions that arise in interpreting the sometimes Byzantine open meetings law.

While the media and government officials often argue about the fine print, many citizens seem to sit idly on the sidelines during the debate, apparently leaving it to someone else to do battle for them. But, with just a small investment of time, you can quickly learn much of what you need to know if you want to be your own watchdog, or a watchdog for your civic or advocacy group.

Every year, members of the media and the public routinely challenge decisions to close certain government meetings. And, believe it or not, sometimes they win, when the open meetings board rules that some aspect of the law was violated or the meeting should have been open in the first place.

According to the attorney general’s website, upon completion of the virtual class, you should be empowered to:

  • Describe the purpose of the Open Meetings Act.
  • Determine when the act applies.
  • Understand the ground rules for holding a meeting that is subject to the act.
  • Determine when and how a public body can close a meeting to the public.
  • Determine what minutes and other documents are required by the act.
  • Understand how the act is enforced.
The course is available now on the institute’s website at www.igsr.umd.edu/VLC/OMA/. Those who finish the course and pass the quizzes earn a certificate of completion.

More importantly, you’ll also be able to join what hopefully will be a growing pack of rabid watchdogs whose sole purpose is to yap at the heels of public bodies in an effort to guarantee more open and accountable government.

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