State law broken by Mayor’s hotel advisory committee (HAC) meeting behind closed doors for six years

Mayor McClement’s hotel advisory committee (HAC) has been breaking state law for six years — a public body meeting behind closed doors. Maryland’s Open Meetings Act requires state and local public bodies to hold their meetings in public, provide adequate notice of meetings, and compile and release agendas and minutes of the meetings. Although they can go into closed session when discussing confidential topics, meetings of the City and County, political ‘sub-divisions’ of the State must generally be notified to the public, documented and open. (Closed ‘smoke-filled rooms’ of similar cliques in New York and Chicago associated from the 19th century on with crony racketeering — cartoon nearby)

Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh: “The (Open Meetings) Act’s goals are to increase the public’s faith in government, ensure the accountability of government to the public, and enhance the public’s ability to participate effectively in our democracy.”

http://www.marylandattorneygeneral.gov/Pages/OpenGov/OpenMeetings/default.aspx

The founding fathers recognized the evil of rule by backroom cliques, Patrick Henry writing in 1788 that “the liberties of a people (are never) secure when the transactions of their rulers are concealed from them.” Almost all abuses of government power are contrived in secrecy, the rationale for the movement for applying the principle of ‘open government.’

The HAC has never been listed as a City entity, its meetings have never been publicly advertised or open, its agenda and minutes have never been published, yet it has been constantly cited as the major source of advice to the City on the $84m downtown hotel and conference center (DHCC.) The City has delegated to the HAC the management of hotel consultants, site selection, specifications for the hotel, the structuring of the procurement, the scoring of bids in RFP14J, the lobbying effort for state money, and public outreach or propaganda on behalf of the project.

The hotel advisory committee was established by Mayor McClement in 2011 and gets different names, the longest being Downtown Frederick Hotel and Conference Center Advisory Committee, other names abbreviate by omitting words such as Frederick, or Advisory, or Downtown, or the phrase ‘and Conference Center.’ Sometimes the committee convenor, Richard Griffin, City head of economic development, refers to it as The Team, or The Hotel Team, or as ‘community partners’ or just ‘partners.’

We’ll just refer to it as the hotel advisory committee or HAC.

The HAC is a public body by state law under State code 10.502 Definitions (h) (2) “ ‘Public body’ includes: (i) any multimember board, commission, or committee appointed by the Governor or the chief executive authority of a political subdivision of the State, or appointed by an official who is subject to the policy direction of the Governor or chief executive authority of the political subdivision, if the entity includes in its membership at least two individuals not employed by the State or the political subdivision;”

pA-2 of http://www.marylandattorneygeneral.gov/OpenGov%20Documents/Openmeetings/AppA.pdf

The HAC members appointed by the Mayor
The HAC is a ‘public body’ required to be open as defined in state law,  we have been told by several attorneys. It was created and its membership was appointed or eligible membership defined by representation of chosen ‘partners’ by Mayor McClement. HAC chairman Earl Robbins has often publicly referred to the Mayor having invited him to chair the HAC. Other members of the HAC have been aides to the Mayor and County Executive, City and County directors of economic development and representatives of trade associations: the Frederick County Chamber of Commerce, the Chamber’s Major Employers Group, the Downtown Partnership, Frederick County Tourism Council, East Frederick Rising, and sometimes a lead consultant. Some years ago when Frederick Preservation Trust (FPT) asked for representation to provide a historic preservation voice at the HAC it was told that the Mayor decided the membership of the HAC. So FPT asked him for a HAC seat. (He declined their request.)

HAC meets in City Hall, its meetings convened and agenda set by a City official
HAC meetings have generally been held on City property, most in City Hall itself. Meetings of the HAC have been called on a ‘when-needed’ basis by Richard Griffin, a City department head sometimes referred to as the hotel project manager. Griffin has also set the agenda for meetings. When endorsement is sought from City government at the Mayor & Board of Aldermen meetings or proposals are being put to City regulatory agencies like the Historic Preservation and the Planning Commission, the lead speaker is usually HAC chair Earl Robbins. On other occasions it is Griffin. Griffin repeatedly refers to the HAC as his source of authority for the conduct of the hotel project, citing it as having recommended this, or determined that. The Mayor, too, treats the HAC as his main deliberative body on the hotel project.

The Open Meetings Act has various tests of whether a local government entity is a ‘public body’ and if it meets one of them then it is subject to the requirements of public notice of meetings, open meetings, publication of agenda and minutes, and operating only with a quorum of members. The fact that Mayor McClement appointed HAC’s membership is sufficient to establish it as a City ‘public body’ but the fact that Griffin, a senior deputy to the Mayor has convened meetings of the HAC and set its agenda for those meetings, and that those meetings have been held in City premises in City Hall only reinforce its status as a City body under the terms of state law.

As a City body the HAC should be a listed like 26 other City boards, commissions & committees ranging alphabetically from Ad Hoc Economic Development Advisory Committee and Airport Commission through to Westside Regional Park Task Force and Zoning Board of Appeals. Like these 26 (see screen shot higher on the page) the HAC should be listed there, structured for public notification of meetings, publication of agenda ahead of the meetings, open meetings, reporting of minutes and requiring a quorum present.

see
http://www.cityoffrederick.com/124/Boards-Commissions

The downtown hotel project has an already formidable list of disgraces as a boondoggle:

— its waste of public funds proposing to spend $84m on a project which the City’s financial consultant Municap values on opening at $30m based on prospective cash flows

— a doubling of project cost and trebling of ‘public’ contributions over four years

— the boosterish nonsense of so-called ‘impact analysis’ used to promote it, which treats ALL the hotel’s prospective business as net new business for the city and the county

— disregard for consultant JLL’s recommendation of a competitive procurement process

— the sham competed procurement of a crony developer, seen in the farce of the winning proposal being received by the City before the issuance of the RFP with the City’s consultant JLL working on it simultaneously with drafting the RFP

— scoring of the two proposals received that is a travesty of commonsense

— the high comedy of the infinitely stretchable HAC timeline under which in 2011 the project hotel was to open in 2014, in 2012 2015 etc such that the opening is always three years off

— hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on lobbying and hundreds of hours of officials time spent on shameful panhandling expeditions to Annapolis

— the belittling of the City’s Historic Preservation Commission

— the project’s blighting of the marketplace for privately financed downtown lodging over the past decade depriving the downtown of any hotel lodging whatsoever, achieving the opposite of the supposed objective of City-sponsorship

Add to this list that the ‘community partners’ or the ‘Hotel Team’ or the hotel advisory committee with however many adjectives it collects or drops on any given day, is in reality just an old-fashioned insider clique. Its objective has been to grant a favored developer a big monopoly downtown and to engineer a ripoff of taxpayers. Contrived by City officials in the name of ‘economic development’ the HAC has been operating behind closed doors in breach of state law, and contrary to the better practice of most other City agencies. (NOTE: This conclusion has been expanded from the initial posting that tried to pack far too much into a single sentence.)

BACKGROUND:
The statement of purpose of the Maryland Open Meetings Act says

“It is essential to the maintenance of a democratic society that, except in special
and appropriate circumstances:

— public business be performed in an open and public manner; and
citizens be allowed to observe:
— the performance of public officials; and
the deliberations and decisions that the making of public policy
involves.

“The ability of the public, its representatives, and the media to attend, report on, and broadcast meetings of public bodies and to witness the phases of the deliberation, policy formation, and decision making of public bodies ensures the accountability of government to the citizens of the State.

“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.

“Except in special and appropriate circumstances when meetings of public bodies may be closed under this subtitle, it is the public policy of the State that the public be provided with adequate notice of the time and location of meetings of public bodies, which shall be held in places reasonably accessible to individuals who would like to attend these meetings” from Ballotopedia
https://ballotpedia.org/Maryland_Open_Meetings_Act

text of Open Meetings Act:

http://www.marylandattorneygeneral.gov/OpenGov%20Documents/Openmeetings/AppA.pdf

The Open Meetings Act is described as Title 10. Government Procedures, Subtitle 5 Meetings and also as §§ 3-201 thru 206 of the General Provisions Article of the Maryland Annotated Code (2014, with 2016 supp.).

The Act is posted at “Other Resources” on the Open Meetings page of the Attorney General’s website:
http://www.marylandattorneygeneral.gov/Pages/OpenGov/Openmeetings/default.aspx

The Maryland Code is at the website of the General Assembly of Maryland:
http://www.mgaleg.maryland.gov/webmga/frm1st.aspx?tab=home

An Open Meetings Act manual of the AG’s department:
http://www.marylandattorneygeneral.gov/Pages/OpenGov/omaManual.aspx

Much of this is available starting:
http://www.marylandattorneygeneral.gov/Pages/OpenGov/OpenMeetings/default.aspx

RECOURSE: There is a State Open Meetings Law Compliance Board staffed by the AG’s Office which takes complaints about violations of the Open Meetings law. It sends those complaints back to the public body that is the subject of the complaint, which has 30 days to issue a defense of its closed meetings. The State Board has no power to penalize the offending body beyond shaming it and requiring it to publicly report the violation.

Complaints can be filed in a Circuit Court. If the court finds violation of the open meetings law it may void any actions taken during any meeting in violation of the law. Also it may assess fines against individual members up to $100 per violation/member. If for example ten members of the HAC have attended say 30 meetings of the HAC in violation of the open meetings law then the fines could total up to a maximum $30,000 (10x30x$100.) This is designed to deter and punish persons conniving with government officials, even by way of candy-floss titled bodies like The Hotel Team, dealing in public business behind closed doors. PSam 2017.09.24

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