Op-Ed: Sunshine Week by Craig O’Donnell

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Schools consume the lion’s share of local budgets in Maryland, and the transparent operation of every school board is important.

The public’s business is directly connected to the public’s pocketbook, and all school boards should remember that, with a very few true exceptions, discussing public business in closed session is optional, not required.

If a topic is debated behind closed doors, the topic itself is not confidential.

It’s Sunshine Week at news organizations around the country, and public access to public information is under examination.

Appropriately, the state’s Open Meetings Compliance Board (OMCB) put out its opinion, 12 OMCB 09, on the Kent County Board of Education’s meeting documentation in time for Sunshine Week.

The opinion is odd, since the OMCB usually provides detailed analysis where open meetings violations are concerned. In fact, the one-page opinion makes little sense without a copy of the BOE’s lawyer’s response letter.

The letter by Leslie Stallman admitted that many of the allegations were justified and said the BOE would correct what it does. Now it’s up to the public to make sure that happens.

Stallman wrote: “The Board recognizes that the meeting minutes attached to the Complaint lack certain requirements …. While the meeting minutes do contain a ‘record of the vote of each member as to the closing of the session’ and a broad statement of the purpose of the closed session, the minutes lack a statement of the time and place of the closed session and the citation of the authority under § 3-305 and the listing of the topics of discussion, persons present, and action taken during the closed session ….

“In an effort to rectify this deficiency, the Board has consulted with counsel and intends to update its practices to bring them in compliance with the OMA’s requirements for post-closed session disclosures in its meeting minutes.”

In plain words, every month most of the legally required information about its closed-door activities was missing from the Kent BOE’s minutes.

The letter goes on to deal specifically with various meetings, including several where the BOE claimed they were consulting with lawyers, without revealing, as required, who the attorney was.

On another date in March, the BOE said it would discuss “collective bargaining” (without further explanation) but did not. Each time the BOE talked to a lawyer, they said they were getting “legal advice on a legal matter.”

The BOE wasn’t always forthcoming with the specific reason for holding a discussion outside public view (it must provide one). And so on.

The letter repeatedly says the BOE, “… will endeavor to include more meaningful descriptions of the topics for closed-session discussion as required .…”

Whether the violations were “serious,” as I thought – the OMCB thinks not, without explaining to anyone what a “serious” violation would be – it’s clear they were ongoing, repeated monthly, relying on the same generalities.

The public is entitled to more and better information, but considering that this problem with the Board of Education is of long standing, the public had better be on its toes and speak up when public business is described in vague and general terms.


Craig O’Donnell is a former Kent County News reporter who has been a close observer of local government and its compliance with the Maryland Open Meetings Act. He filed the complaint on which this commentary is based. He currently writes for the Dover Post in Delaware.

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Letters to Editor

  1. Gren Whitman says:

    Craig O’Donnell continues to serve the public interest by holding various public bodies’ tootsies to the fire by demanding recognition of and conformance with Maryland’s Open Meetings Act.
    Many public bodies continue to violate this state law, and must be forced into compliance.
    Here’s a good (or a bad?) example: I have just filed a sixth complaint since 2014 with the Open Meetings Compliance Board against the Rock Hall Town Council.

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