The Calvert Board of County Commissioners has held closed-door sessions repeatedly without properly disclosing the topics discussed at the meetings as required by state law, according to county records and officials.
Associate County Attorney Pamela R. Lucas said she would advise the commissioners to be more diligent in following the Maryland Open Meetings Act, which is designed to create more openness in local government.
"I'm sure that it's not done intentionally," Lucas said when asked about the issue last month. "It appears that it's just a clerical oversight."
According to county records, the commissioners have met in closed sessions up to 20 times since March without creating a written record of the topics discussed at those meetings as required by law.
Commissioner Susan Shaw (R-Huntingtown) said the county was wrong for not disclosing the subjects of meetings held behind closed doors and said the board would act more openly.
"The smart thing to do, always, in my opinion, is for government to be as open as it possibly can," she said.
The board also appears to have failed to keep any documentation outlining the circumstances that justified closing those 20 sessions to the public, a procedure also required by a section of the Open Meetings Act.
"A vote to close a meeting is not enough to comply with the Act," the state's Open Meetings Compliance Board wrote in a 2004 ruling. "The Act also requires the presiding officer to 'make a written statement of the reason for closing a meeting, including a citation of the authority under the section, and a listing of the topics to be discussed.' "
The law requires those statements to be preserved for public inspection for at least a year.
But Lucas said the county does not have any of those records.
"The presiding officer does not maintain copies of these statements," she wrote on Sept. 15 in response to a request The Washington Post filed, seeking the documents under the Maryland Public Information Act. "Therefore, I am unable to provide you with any documents in response to this request."
Lucas said commissioners President David F. Hale (R-Owings) usually reads a one- or two-sentence statement when meetings are closed but does not keep those statements. "He just throws them away afterward," she said in an interview.
Hale did not return phone calls seeking comment.
William R. Varga, an assistant state attorney general, said those actions constitute a serious breach of the open meetings law. "That's a continuing violation," he said.
"Somebody can go to court and sue the authority" for violating the act, Varga said. "The court could even void the acts the authority has taken. But that's the exception."
The board's agendas have not identified the subjects of closed-door sessions since its March 8 meeting (the listed topics were "Site Plan Request" and "Personnel Matter -- Calvert Marine Museum").
Constance E. Clark, an administrative aide to the commissioners, said the omission of the topics began around the time the board hired a new clerk, Corinne J. Cook, to compile the weekly agendas.
"She changed the whole format of the agenda," Clark said. Cook did not return a call seeking comment.
But the commissioners might have fallen short of disclosure requirements before Cook was hired.
The law allows a public body to meet behind closed doors to receive legal advice and discuss business such as personnel matters and the acquisition of real estate. But when it closes a meeting, the public body is supposed to cite the statute that allows the closed session and give a description of the topics to be discussed, with a more specific description than just "legal advice" or "personnel matter."
"[S]ome account beyond uninformative boilerplate must be given of the topic and the reason for closing," the compliance board wrote in a case from 2001.
The Calvert commissioners, however, have used such boilerplate language in recent years. The agenda from Nov. 30, 2004, refers to "Personnel Matters, Land Acquisition" as the subject of a closed-door meeting; the topics from Feb. 1 are listed as "2 Personnel Matters and 1 Legal Matter." Neither agenda cites the statute that allows the meeting to be closed.
The law also includes an "executive function" exemption, which allows the commissioners to meet privately without advance notice or disclosing the subjects discussed. But Varga said the executive exception does not apply to topics such as personnel matters or legal advice that the board often discusses behind closed doors.
Shaw said the recent inquiries about the closed meetings would prompt the board to be more transparent.
"Can we make improvements? Yes. Was there an effort to hide things? No, I don't believe there was," Shaw said. But, she added, "the bottom line is that we need to be as open as we can."