Commissioners to tour county roads

July 09, 2012|By ANDREW SCHOTZ |

WASHINGTON COUNTY — The Washington County Board of Commissioners plans to tour southern Washington County Tuesday morning to look at road conditions.

The item is the only topic on the commissioners’ morning agenda, starting at 8:30 a.m.

The agenda says Joseph Kroboth III, the county’s public works director, and Edwin Plank, the county’s highway department director, will be on the tour, too, but lists no other details.

Kroboth said during a phone interview that the tour will have two purposes. One is to look at two roads along the C&O Canal National Historical Park — Limekiln Road, which has a steep dropoff, and Back Road, portions of which slide into the canal, he said.

Kroboth said he wants the commissioners to see the roads firsthand as the county considers whether to reconstruct them.

The second focus is resurfacing. Kroboth said some residents urge the county to use hot-mix asphalt to repair roads. But for roads with less than a certain level of traffic, the county uses a less-expensive process called chip-sealing.

Kroboth said roads have loose stones for several weeks after chip-sealing, but become smoother. He plans to show the commissioners roads that were recently chip-sealed and some from past years for comparison.

Initially, county spokeswoman Sarah Lankford Sprecher said there probably would not be room for anyone else on a county van besides the five commissioners, Kroboth, Plank and County Administrator Gregory B. Murray.

Later, she wrote in an email that a reporter could go, too.

Kroboth said his public works predecessor, Gary Rohrer, gave similar roads tours to the commissioners.

The Maryland Open Meetings Act requires public bodies to conduct business in the open, although certain exceptions are allowed.

It also requires that the public get notice and space to observe public meetings.

Ann MacNeille, a Maryland assistant attorney general who works on open-meetings issues, said the administrative function clause allows government bodies to meet privately, without the public.

By law, administrative function can apply if the body is administering a law of the state or of a political subdivision or “a rule, regulation, or bylaw of a public body.”

“The administrative exclusion would not apply if they conduct policy discussions,” MacNeille said, declining to comment specifically on the circumstances of the Washington County road tour.

Meetings under the “administrative function” umbrella are not subject to the Open Meetings Act, including requirements for public notice and accommodation.

Commissioner Ruth Anne Callaham said Monday that the commissioners are well versed in the Open Meetings Act and know they can’t discuss county business while on the road or at events not advertised as public meetings.

Commissioner Jeffrey A. Cline said he asked beforehand about the five commissioners holding a meeting on the road and was told that it was only to see the roads.

He said he hadn’t thought about the public not being privy to the commissioners’ discussion, but having a reporter there would help keep it public.

Next time, the commissioners might be better off getting a list of roads and visiting them on their own, he said.

Kroboth said it was his intent all along to have a reporter invited to be on the tour as a conduit to the public.

In February, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals ruled that a Charles County board of appeals violated the Open Meetings Act when it visited the site of a proposed research facility.

Two members of the community, certain county employees and representatives from the applicant also were allowed to attend, according to the Court of Special Appeals’ written opinion.

That case has been appealed to the Court of Appeals, Maryland’s highest court, MacNeille said.

In 2005, two Hagerstown City Council members and the mayor, along with 19 other city officials, rode a rented coach through the city’s streets for two hours to look at development, road improvements and related issues.

Two council members objected to the city spending $684 to rent the coach and instead followed in a car, talking by phone to a council member who was on the bus.

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