The University System of Maryland's governing board is now under fire from legal experts who say it violated the state’s Open Meetings Act when it met in private to discuss moving to the Big Ten Conference. Meanwhile, its flagship school offers an online course in the very law it is accused of breaking.
The board voted Monday to endorse the university’s application to join the conference. University system officials have said the vote was not required for the change. The chancellor of the system said on Monday that the meetings were legal and conducted under the supervision of the attorney general’s office. The chairman of the board said in a statement on Wednesday that the board convened under “the advice and counsel of the Office of the Attorney General.”
Earlier this year, Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler and the U-Md. Institute for Governmental Service and Research teamed together to create an online course to teach the basics of the Maryland Open Meetings Act. In a May press release, Gansler is quoted as saying: “Giving people an easier way to gain a working knowledge of the Open Meetings Act promotes a more open and honest government.”
I took the free online course this week, reading through six lessons and taking 10 quizzes. Here are some highlights:
The course kicks off with a short introductory video featuring Gansler, who says in part: “As the Open Meetings Act states, conducting public business openly promotes government accountability, it increases public faith in government and helps the public become more involved.”
Lesson No. 2 of the course explains that a meeting of a public board happens when a quorum, a simple majority, convenes “for the consideration or transaction of public business.” The course notes that convening can occur by “conference call or other means that allow the members to interact simultaneously.”
After the lesson, there was a quiz that included this item: “If three members of a 5-member public body hold a conference call to discuss public business, is that event a meeting? a) Yes, because a quorum has convened and is discussing public business. b) No, because no quorum is physically present.” (The answer is a.)
Lesson No. 3 of the course explores how public bodies are expected to give “reasonable advance notice” of the time and location of meetings. The reading material states: ”The General Assembly did not want to preclude a public body from scheduling an emergency meeting on short notice should the need arise. But, even for an emergency meeting, some notice must be given — such as a phone call to the media representatives who normally cover the public body's activities and the posting of a notice on the public body's website.”
Quiz No. 3 includes this question: “A public body must give public notice even if the meeting is closed. a) True. b) False.” (Answer is a.)
Lesson No. 4 covers how to close a public meeting. The lesson starts by stating: “Even a closed meeting must start as an open session. Right before closure, there must be a motion and vote in favor of closure. A record reflecting a consensus vote suffices if the record reflects who was present and who, if anyone, dissented.”
A resulting quiz question: “A public body may not vote to close a meeting during a closed meeting. a) True. b) False.” (Answer is a.)
And lesson No. 6 covers what might happen if a public body violates the open meetings act and is investigated by a compliance board. The following quiz included this: “A public body that violates the Act's public notice requirements runs the risk that a court will void actions taken at the meeting. a) True. b) False.” (Answer is a.)
Again, you can take the online course yourself by visiting www.igsr.umd.edu/VLC/OMA/.