Baltimore County’s commission to reform its inspector general office will hear public testimony Tuesday evening as Maryland authorities review a complaint that commission members’ private meetings with county officials and employees were illegal.
Tuesday’s virtual meeting will provide constituents with their first chance to publicly address the Blue Ribbon Commission on Ethics and Accountability, created by Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. in October of last year to recommend policy changes to reform the county’s Office of the Inspector General, which investigates government fraud, waste and abuse.
The public comment portion of the meeting was added to the commission’s agenda after The Baltimore Banner reported that Maryland’s Open Meetings Compliance Board is reviewing a constituent’s complaint that the commission is violating the state’s open meetings law by holding closed-door subcommittee meetings and refusing to disclose information about what was discussed or with whom. The subcommittees have met with at least a dozen county employees as well as Council Chair Julian Jones, County Administrative Officer Stacy Rodgers and an unnamed council member.
Jones, a Woodstock Democrat, privately spoke to committee members weeks before a Nov. 17 report by Inspector General Kelly Madigan found Jones coordinated with Department of Public Works Acting Director D’Andrea Walker and Rodgers to spend nearly $70,000 from a program intended for homeowners to instead help a businessperson quickly repave a Towson alley next to their business.
In a Monday letter to the state compliance board, Baltimore County Attorney James Benjamin said subcommittees’ private conversations with county officials and employees do not violate Maryland’s open meetings law because a quorum of the commission’s members are not present at subcommittee meetings, according to the letter shared by Baltimore County.
Benjamin added that the committees were created “informally,” justifying their exemption from the law.
The subcommittees, Benjamin wrote, are tasked with compiling data to be discussed by the commission “as a whole to facilitate its deliberations as a body to come up with recommendations.”
The commission will discuss “fact-finding done by the subcommittees” at its Tuesday meeting, he added.
The compliance board typically issues an opinion within 30 days of receiving requested materials, which may include the complaint, a response, a rebuttal and other submissions.
Agencies that violate the Open Meetings Act must announce the violation “at an open meeting” and summarize the compliance board’s opinion, according to Attorney General Brian Frosh’s office.
The University of Baltimore’s Schaefer Center for Public Policy is providing staffing support for the commission. Ann Cotten, the center’s director, did not respond to questions emailed by The Banner Monday afternoon asking why the commission scheduled time for public comment and whether it expects to include public comment at future meetings.
Olszewski created the commission by executive order after Baltimore County Council Democrats, including Jones, skewered Inspector General Kelly Madigan for her “aggressive” investigation tactics last year. Madigan was hired as the county’s first director of ethics and accountability, a position Olszewski created in December 2019. The position was subsequently renamed at Madigan’s request so she could qualify to become certified as an inspector general.
Olszewski previously sought to restrict Madigan’s authority in the summer of 2021, drafting legislation that would have created an IG oversight board composed of members appointed by the administration and the council chair. The bill, which was never introduced by the council, included other reforms that the Association of Inspectors General wrote in an open letter would “effectively gag and shackle” Madigan.
Instead, Olszewski established the ethics and accountability commission.
The commission has met three times since August, according to the Schaefer Center, and has canceled just as many meetings. Agendas for prior meetings have been anemic, but Tuesday’s agenda includes more than a dozen topics up for discussion, including oversight of the inspector general’s office, access to government materials and subpoena power.
Those who want to provide comment must register to attend the virtual Zoom meeting at 5:30 p.m. and also sign up to speak.