Baltimore County IG reform commission did not violate open meetings law, review finds

Published 12/27/2022 3:47 p.m. EST, Updated 12/28/2022 6:16 a.m. EST

6/16/22—A sign reading “Baltimore County Maryland” hangs on the wall inside the historic Baltimore County Courthouse in Towson, the center of county government.

Maryland’s Open Meetings Compliance Board said Tuesday that Baltimore County did not violate the state’s open meetings law when members of the commission to reform the county inspector general’s office met multiple times behind closed doors with county employees and officials.

The compliance board, which responds to complaints of possible Open Meetings Act violations, wrote that based on “the few facts before us,” it’s not clear that the Blue Ribbon Commission on Ethics and Accountability’s subcommittees were created with the intent of obscuring matters of public interest, and therefore are exempt from the sunshine law.

“As a general matter, we do not believe that the General Assembly intended that public bodies could operate out of the sunshine by apportioning their statutory powers among committees composed of fewer than a quorum of their members,” the compliance board, which functions within the attorney general’s office, wrote in the Tuesday opinion.

“But we cannot conclude, based on the limited record before us, that the Commission created the subcommittees here as an ‘evasive device,’” the board wrote.

The compliance board lacks “investigative powers,” its attorneys wrote, and is “not in a position to infer that a public body has acted with the intent to evade the Act.”

In his Oct. 27 complaint, county resident David Plymyer asserted the county broke Maryland’s open meetings law by holding closed-door meetings of the two subcommittees shouldering the bulk of the commission’s work to recommend changes to Baltimore County’s Office of the Inspector General.

The subcommittees met with County Council Chair Julian Jones and another unnamed council member, County Administrative Officer Stacy Rodgers and at least a dozen other county employees. Members disclosed that during the commission’s public meetings they had met as subcommittees with some of the officials, but the University of Baltimore’s Schaefer Center for Public Policy, which is providing staffing for the commission, has declined to provide additional information.

William Johnson Jr., the commission chairman, has also declined The Banner’s interview requests.

Because — in Johnson’s words — the subcommittees were performing the “meat” of the commission’s duties, Plymyer, a former Anne Arundel County attorney, wrote to the Open Meetings Compliance Board that the subcommittees’ meetings should be public.

Subcommittees are generally exempt from Maryland’s open meetings law, depending on their duties. The law prohibits exploiting subcommittees as “evasive devices” to shut the public out of deliberations.

According to the AG’s open meetings manual, subcommittees “should not be used as a way to perform the parent body’s functions behind closed doors,” and those that do risk “being deemed a public body.”

Baltimore County attorney James Benjamin told the compliance board in a November letter responding to Plymyer’s complaint that the subcommittees are exempt from the Open Meetings Act because the subcommittees don’t consist of a quorum of the seven-member commission, and because they were created “informally.”

More from The Banner