3 Cecil County Commissioners Commiserate at Chili’s; State Lawyer Warns Private Confabs in Conflict with Open Meetings Act
The Cecil County Commissionersâ€™ â€śThree Amigosâ€ť faction gathered after Tuesday nightâ€™s official commissioners meeting for a tete a tete at Chiliâ€™s in Elkton, multiple sources said– just hours after an Assistant State Attorney General warned them about such gatherings that could be seen as a violation of the stateâ€™s Open Meetings Act.
Granted, the Three Amigosâ€”Commissioners James Mullin (R-1), Diana Broomell (R-4) and Michael Dunn (R-3)â€”had a tough night, being lambasted for the second consecutive evening meeting by members of the countyâ€™s â€śtea partyâ€ť organization, the Cecil County Patriots, during the public comments portion of the official meeting. So perhaps a cool libation was in order to steady the commissionersâ€™ nerves.
But the lessons imparted Tuesday morning at a commissionersâ€™ public worksession by Ann MacNeille, an Assistant Attorney General who serves as legal counsel to the state Open Meetings Compliance Board, seemed to have been quickly forgotten.
Ms. MacNeilleâ€™s briefing on the fine points of the state Open Meetings Act was requested by County Commissioner Robert Hodge (R-5), who has voted several times against going into secret, closed sessions of the county board.
Hodge has also questioned what he has said appeared to be private conversations or contacts among a three-member majority of the five-member commissionersâ€™ board on a number of public policy issues, especially efforts to kill the proposed takeover of county wastewater plants by the private Artesian Resources firm. (The Three Amigos faction voted last week to â€śmutually terminateâ€ť the contract to sell four county sewage plants to Artesian, while Hodge and Commissioner Tari Moore (R-2) voted no.)
The Cecil County Board of Commissioners received a major wrist-slap from the Open Meetings Compliance Board earlier this year over discussions, involving a previous Board of Commissioners, on the hiring of a lobbyist to oppose legislation in Annapolis. [SEE Cecil Times Special Report here: http://ceciltimes.com/2011/05/cecil-county-commissioners-slapped-on-wrist-by-state-open-meetings-panel/ ]
Ms. MacNeille advised the commissioners that â€śwhen decisions pop up out of nowhereâ€ť citizens will wonder where the rationale came from since it was not discussed in public.
She cited what she called the â€śDunkinâ€™ Donuts case,â€ť in which citizens spotted a majority of elected town officials routinely showing up together at the local shop. It was determined that the visits to the local donut emporium were coincidental, but she said it illustrated the problem of public perception.
Chiliâ€™s does not serve donuts, as far as we know, and is but one of many restaurants and bars in the Elkton area. Of course, it might just have been coincidental that the Three Amigos showed up there shortly after their evening public meeting, but it did not appear to be coincidental that they sat together and had a lengthy conversation, sources told Cecil Times.
During Tuesdayâ€™s public commissionersâ€™ worksession, Ms. MacNeille told the commissioners that state law was vague on email contacts among commissioners and was primarily targeted to situations when commissioners were â€śpresent togetherâ€ť where there was a â€śquorumâ€ť present, either in person or including some members participating in a discussion via a telephone conference call.
Commissioner Broomell questioned whether a commissioner should be forced to explain why heâ€”and she clearly meant Hodgeâ€”voted against going into a closed, secret session. Ms. MacNeille said that was not required.
Ms. Broomell also opined that she thought it was â€ślegalâ€ť for commissioner to be together if they did not discuss policy questions. Ms. MacNeille said that there were many occasions, such as public events, ribbon-cuttings or casual contacts and community events that would not trigger the open meetings law because there was no discussion of public policy matters.
So perhaps the Three Amigos were discussing the weather at Chiliâ€™s?
[UPDATE: Commissioner Broomell contacted Cecil Times on Thursday to say that she was mostly talking with Mike Burns, a Democrat and the chairman of the county Ethics Commission, at Chili's and did not go there with the intent of having sub-rosa conversations with fellow commissioners. She complained that our report gave an impression that was "not accurate."]