By Adam Pagnucco.
On Tuesday, I wrote a post asking whether the county council had violated the state’s Open Meetings Act by posting two charter amendments on its agenda the morning of their vote. County council attorney Bob Drummer wrote me the email below explaining why the council did not violate the law.
I’m reaching out to you about your Aug. 4 post in Seventh State asking if the Montgomery County Council is in compliance with the Maryland Open Meetings Act because of two potential ballot proposal that were added to the Council agenda and posted on the Council’s web page on the morning of Aug. 4.
Your post misses the point of the Open Meetings Act. The Act requires the Council to provide reasonable notice before conducting an open meeting. The Act goes on to require the Council to post an agenda for the meeting for public viewing if it has been determined at the same time as the notice of the meeting. If an agenda is not determined at the time of the notice, it should be posted at least 24 hours in advance (Md. Code Ann., General Provisions Article, Sec. 3-302.1(a)). Sec. 3-302.1(b) provides an exception for an emergency meeting. It appears that you only read these sections and made some incorrect assumptions from this selective reading.
Let me explain. Notice of the August 4 meeting was posted more than 24 hours before the meeting. The notice included an agenda. The agenda included a discussion and action on 2 possible Charter Amendments concerning the composition of the Council – one by petition and one by Councilmember Glass. In your blog, you complained about the late addition of 2 alternative Charter Amendments proposed by Councilmembers Riemer and Navarro concerning the composition of the Council. First, the public had ample advance notice that the Council was going to discuss possible Charter Amendments concerning the composition of the Council. More importantly, the final provision of the Section you mistakenly relied on, Sec. 3-302.1(e) states:
(e) Alteration of agenda. — Nothing in this section may be construed to prevent a public body from altering the agenda of a meeting after the agenda has been made available to the public.
This section expressly authorizes a public body to alter the agenda of a meeting after the agenda has been posted. The two proposals that you question were just that – alterations of the agenda after it was posted. If your reading of the statute was correct, a public body would never be able to change the agenda at the last minute, and a Councilmember would never be permitted to move to amend a resolution or bill before it at the meeting if notice of the proposed amendment was not provided to the public at least 24 hours in advance. Such a reading would make the Open Meetings Act unworkable. The main purpose of the Open Meetings Act is to ensure that almost all (except for permitted closed meetings) legislative decisions by a public body are made in public. The purpose of the notice and agenda requirement is to ensure that the public has the opportunity to watch (or at least hear) the meeting. The notice and agenda requirement is not designed to hamstring a public body into strictly following a posted agenda without any flexibility to modify it.
The two proposals you question in your post are referenced in the Council’s media advisory that was distributed and posted to the Council’s web page on the evening of Aug. 3. The advisory generally describes the proposals and notes that the Council staff reports will be available on Aug. 4. You can view the advisory here: https://www2.montgomerycountymd.gov/mcgportalapps/Press_Detail.aspx?Item_ID=25673&Dept=1. Moreover, as you reported in your subsequent Aug. 4 post in the Seventh State, the Council did not approve either of the ballot proposals.
I also want to take this opportunity to remind you and your readers that all Council and committee meetings are televised on County Cable Montgomery and are streamed on Facebook and YouTube. In addition, individuals without internet or cable access can listen to Council and committee meetings on the call in line.
As always, we appreciate you following Council deliberations and getting the word out about important public policy issues that impact Montgomery County residents.
Robert H. Drummer
Senior Legislative Attorney
Montgomery County Council