I have requested that the City Council president of the Town of Ocean City release the minutes of all closed sessions held by the City Council regarding the deliberations, discussions and negotiations of the Pier Franchise for the period between May, 2018 through November, 2019.
My first request was a verbal request at the work session on June 23, 2020. That request was later denied.
On Oct. 17, 2020, I sent a formal written request to the council president, citing Section C-406 of the Town Charter, under the heading, “Rules of order and business; minute books,” which states in pertinent part, “The minute books shall be open to public inspection.”
Note that Section C-406 makes no distinction between open and closed meetings of the City Council.
I further cited Section C-404 of the charter, which states in pertinent part, “Except for those meetings permitted to be closed under state law, all meetings of the Mayor and Council shall be open to the public,…”.
It is clear from the opinion of the Open Meetings Compliance Board dated June 3, 2020, that all of these closed meetings should have been open to the public.
Maryland’s Open Meetings Compliance Board found that the council violated the Open Meetings Act on multiple occasions, stating in part, “…except to the extent that parts of the council’s closed-door discussions about the pier franchise might have fallen within the legal advice exception, the council violated the Act at every closed meeting at which it discussed the pier franchise.”
The board further stated, “We find that the procurement exception did not apply to any of the discussions about franchise matters and the legal advice exception seldom applied. We conclude that the council violated…3-301-the core open meetings requirement-and…3-305-the Act’s prohibition on discussions exceeding the claimed exceptions-during every closed meeting it held on the franchise matters.
Although some exchanges between the city solicitor and the Council fell within the legal advice exception, those exchanges were rare, and they did not provide the Council with a basis on which to exclude the public from any closed session in its entirety.”
The board further wrote, “A public body’s secret creation of committees to address public business that is subject to the Act, coupled with the public body’s secret considerations of that business, at the very least goes against the stated policy of the Act to increase the public’s faith in government.”
Particularly relevant is the board’s citation of the Act’s policy which states, “The conduct of public business in open meetings increases the faith of the public in government and enhances the effectiveness of the public in fulfilling its role in a democratic society.”
The board concluded that “For approximately eighteen months, the council excluded the public from meetings that the public was entitled to observe and withheld from the public information that the public was entitled to have.”
The board added: “Finally, we encourage the council to provide the public with minutes of the portions of the closed sessions from which the public was excluded in violation of the Act.”
In my opinion, Section C-406 does not give the City Council the option to exclude the public from inspecting the minutes of any meeting, especially those meetings that the Compliance Board found that should have been open to the public.
I believe that the council is duty bound by the charter to allow for the inspection of the minute books.
In a letter to me dated Oct. 29, 2020, M’s Heather Stansbury, Office of the City Solicitor, wrote “The matter will not be readdressed by the Mayor and City Council.”
Thus, the council has denied my request for a second time.
I am now appealing to citizens to put pressure on their local elected officials to do the right thing, and to insist that these minutes be opened for public inspection. What is it that the mayor and City Council are hiding?
Vincent dePaul Gisriel Jr.