The State AG’s Open Meetings Compliance Board says the City of Frederick has sent “mixed messages” about the status of its Downtown Hotel Advisory Committee (HAC.) And, it says that there is an apparent “factual disconnect” between the City’s claim that it is a private ad hoc committee under Chamber of Commerce control and the entity by the same name that the City has designated to “perform substantive functions” under the leadership of a chair whom the mayor said he had appointed.
The former would mean it is permissible to work behind closed doors. The latter would make it a ‘public body’ under the terms of the state Open Meetings Act, and it would be legally required to provide public notice of meetings, publish an agenda, conduct meetings in the open, and post minutes — like the many City and County boards, committees and commissions.
The state board says that it didn’t have sufficient facts to give a clear answer to whether the HAC is a ‘public body’ and in violation of the Open Meetings Act by meeting without public notice and behind closed doors. However it suggests that a court case could probably render a clear opinion by examining factual questions of the HAC’s functioning and control.
The state compliance board says all this in response to a complaint I filed about the behind-closed-doors conduct of the HAC under which it adopted a procurement approach that killed competition and heavily favored Plamondon and his highly problematic old Frederick News-Post site.
The official Opinion states: “Our inability to resolve this matter, however, does not mean that a court could not; as we have pointed out in other matters involving nominally-private groups that seemingly perform governmental functions, factual questions of control and actual functioning can be explored and resolved in court in ways not available through our streamlined complaint procedure.”
Another reprimand to the City:
“When a governmental body decides to delegate functions to a privately-created group, the government should consider whether to require the group to act as a public body, in the sunlight. The government should also make the group’s status clear to the public at the outset.”
The Opinion is signed by the two person board: Jonathan A. Hodgson and April C. Isak, both Esquires.
MY COMMENT: It’s disappointing that the Board failed to give appropriate weight to my point that a senior City official Richard Griffin, director of the Department of Economic Development, who served at the pleasure of Mayor McClement was the effective chief executive of the HAC. The HAC met when Griffin decided it needed to meet. Griffin emailed the HAC members to come to the meeting. Griffin composed the agenda of each meeting provided in the emails. Griffin hosted meetings in his office or in the board room of City Hall. Griffin controlled most of the resources of money for consultant services provided to the HAC. Griffin and his City staff followed up on meetings, and Griffin did most of the public presentations on behalf of the HAC.
Failure to weigh Griffin’s dominant role in the HAC is the major shortcoming of the Board’s Opinion.
Still it goes a considerable way to vindicating my complaint. The City should be taken to court, as suggested by the state compliance board. A court could according to the enforcement provisions of the Open Meetings Act, void actions taken illegally by the City HAC, and by injunction order a new competitive procurement.
Here’s the Official Opinion of 3 pages as received from the board: