Baltimore County lawyers have two weeks to respond to a constituent’s allegations that the county commission tasked with hashing out policy changes regarding its inspector general is violating state sunshine laws by holding closed-door subcommittee meetings, sometimes with government officials and County Council members.
The complaint asserts that the subcommittees are performing the bulk of the work for Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr.’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Ethics and Accountability. Because of that, the constituent, David Plymyer, filed a complaint with the Maryland Open Meetings Compliance Board, telling the attorneys that the subcommittees’ deliberations over policy changes and interviews should be public.
Baltimore County, which has outsourced staffing of the commission to University of Baltimore’s Schaefer Center for Public Policy, said in an emailed statement it “believes the assertions being presented are incorrect,” and emphasizes that the commission is “independently led by well-respected experts, including a former state inspector general.”
The ethics and accountability commission is drafting a response to the compliance board, which requested the county respond to the complaint “in the coming days,” county spokeswoman Erica Palmisano said. The request is routine when complaints are received by the compliance board, which operates under the attorney general’s office.
In the Oct. 27 complaint, retired Anne Arundel County attorney Plymyer asserts the Blue Ribbon Commission’s two subcommittees are being exploited as “evasive devices,” illegal actions by a public body to obscure matters of public interest, as defined by state law.
Subcommittees are generally exempt from Maryland’s open meetings law, depending on their duties — some counties, like St. Mary’s, have enacted stricter bylaws requiring such bodies to meet openly.
But the commission’s subcommittees are shouldering the bulk of the commission’s work, according to its chairman, William Johnson Jr., former inspector general for the Maryland Department of Human Services, which investigates fraud, waste and abuse of state social services for vulnerable Marylanders and those in economic need.
One of the committees will make recommendations to change inspector general “operations, process, and procedure,” the other will recommend oversight and organizational reform.
Olszewski appointed Kelly Madigan as the county’s first director of ethics and accountability in 2019 to root out government fraud, waste and abuse, and direct the ethics commission. Her role was soon renamed, at Madigan’s request, so she could qualify to become certified as an inspector general.
The first few years of Madigan’s five-year term have been fraught. Madigan, who previously was deputy state prosecutor for Maryland Office of the State Prosecutor, has come under fire by members of the Baltimore County Council for her “aggressive” demeanor during investigations and attempts by Olszewski’s administration to limit her ability to investigate. In written responses to some of her investigations, the county’s top administrator, Stacy Rodgers, has questioned Madigan’s authority to investigate certain matters.
WYPR reported earlier this year that Olszewski’s former chief of staff in April 2021 commanded Madigan to explain why she is requesting records relevant to her investigations. In July 2021, The Baltimore Brew reported on draft legislation by the Olszewski administration that would have created an IG oversight board composed of members appointed by the administration and the council chair, currently Democrat Julian Jones. It included other reforms that the Association of Inspectors General wrote in an open letter would “effectively gag and shackle” Madigan.
Olszewski never had the bill introduced; in October of last year, he established the Blue Ribbon Commission by executive order. This year, Olszewski funded three additional positions in Madigan’s office, bringing her staff to six.
During their first meeting in June, Johnson told the commission’s eight other members they were tasked with evaluating existing county ethics laws and statutes regulating the IG and providing policy recommendations. They are not meant to evaluate Madigan’s performance nor the performance of the ethics commission, which Madigan directs, he added.
Johnson clarified at an Oct. 20 meeting that the “meat” of the commission’s work preparing policy recommendations would be performed by its subcommittees.
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.”
Referring to that statute, Plymyer said the subcommittees’ work “seems to be the same as the commission’s.”
”They’re not only collecting information; they’re deliberating on it, and they’re making the recommendations,” he said.
During the same meeting, subcommittee members disclosed they had interviewed County Administrative Officer Rodgers, roughly a dozen county employees, Jones (who led council Democrats in revolt again Madigan during a budget hearing) and another, unidentified council member — witnesses ostensibly “testifying as to matters of public interest,” Plymyer said.
Responding to The Baltimore Banner’s emailed questions seeking subcommittee meeting minutes and a list of speakers who have testified privately, Ann Cotten, who directs the Schaefer Center, wrote: “Commission members and staff will not be speaking publicly about its work.”
In a Nov. 2 email declining to share the same information with a constituent separate from Plymyer, Cotten wrote that the commission “does not intend to publish the names of people who spoke with the subcommittees in order to ensure individuals were able to speak freely without fear of reprisal.”
She wrote that the subcommittee heard from those who requested to speak with them, and that Jones testified as an individual, not a county official, according to emails shared with The Banner.
Some residents, Plymyer included, were apprehensive of the commission from its inception given the hostility directed at Madigan and efforts to hamstring her investigations, two of which have concluded the county has extended special treatment to prominent developers.
“What governs this is the context of the commission’s specific mission, which is to deliberate on and make recommendations on the governance of the IG,” Plymyer said.
“For a commission focused on improving ethics and accountability to err on the side of closing meetings … the lack of transparency is tone deaf, if nothing else,” he said.
Opinions issued by the Open Meetings Compliance Board — which functions under the AG — regarding whether a public body violated the act aren’t enforceable, but are meant to serve as, at least, guidelines for best practices under the law.