Board finds U-Md. regents broke open meetings law in Big Ten talks

February 28, 2013

A Maryland state board has concluded that the University System of Maryland Board of Regents violated an open meetings law “in multiple respects” when it met twice in private last fall to discuss plans for the state’s flagship university to move to the Big Ten athletic conference.

In a report this week, the state Open Meetings Compliance Board rejected several arguments the regents advanced to justify unannounced meetings held by telephone on Nov. 18 and in Baltimore on Nov. 19.

The meetings occurred at a sensitive time — just before the University of Maryland jumped from the Atlantic Coast Conference to the Big Ten. The switch, announced Nov. 19, had huge consequences for U-Md. athletics and finances and startled many fans.

Critics said that state university leaders should have discussed most or all the issues related to the switch in public and that the regents failed to follow the state’s sunshine law for public boards.

Regents and other university officials said that total confidentiality was essential to close the deal under what were “emergency” circumstances and that any legal lapses in meeting procedure were harmless or “at worst technical.”

The three-member compliance board, appointed by the governor, sided for the most part with two Maryland residents who filed complaints, journalist Craig O’Donnell and political science teacher Ralph Jaffe.

“The Board [of Regents] itself has an affirmative duty to comply with the Act,” the compliance board wrote. “Accordingly, we find that the Board of Regents violated the Open Meetings Act by failing to give public notice of its November 18 and 19, 2012, Special Meetings and by failing to follow the Act’s mandatory procedures for closing an open meeting.

“We also find, even on the basis of the limited information that the Board has provided to us about those meetings, that at least some of the Board’s discussion should almost certainly have been conducted in open session. Lastly, we find that the summaries of the two closed sessions posted on the Board of Regents’ website are deficient in that both fail to name all persons present at those meetings as required by the Act.”

There appeared to be no penalty for the regents other than the embarrassment of a public scolding from a state board.

Board of Regents Chairman James L. Shea could not be reached Thursday.

The university system said in a statement Wednesday that the Board of Regents “has revised its procedures to ensure transparency and compliance with all aspects of the Open Meetings Act.”

In December, the system issued a statement of regret for the governing board’s failure to follow procedure. In January, the regents took a less contrite view of the matter, arguing that extensive media coverage on the two days of the university’s talks with the Big Ten effectively alerted the world to the meetings.

“[T]o the extent that the November 18 and 19 meetings were not properly noticed, the transgression was at worst technical,” the regents told the compliance board, “as the press and public were aware of those meetings before they occurred and reported on them in near-real-time.”

The compliance board rejected that argument as “unpersuasive and irrelevant,” adding that “only ‘official notice’ satisfies the requirements of the Act.”

Nick Anderson covers higher education for The Washington Post. He has been a writer and editor at The Post since 2005.
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