The Montgomery County Board of Elections violated Maryland’s Open Meetings Act when three members of its Republican majority held a private conference call with local GOP officials to discuss relocation of two early voting sites, one heavily used by minorities, a state board ruled Thursday.
The ruling by the Maryland Open Meetings Compliance Board, based on a complaint filed by attorney and Democratic activist Paul Bessel, carries no penalty. The election board is, however, required to publicly acknowledge the violation at its next meeting.
Under state law, the party that controls the governor’s office holds the majority on state and local election boards. The Montgomery board voted 3-2 along party lines Sept. 21 to move two of the county’s nine sites: the Marilyn J. Praisner Recreation Center, which serves high-poverty East County communities along U.S. 29, and the Jane E. Lawton Recreation Center, about a half-mile from the Bethesda Metro station. The board selected sites in Potomac and Olney to replace them.
Republican board president Jim Shalleck said the purpose of the move was to achieve “geographic diversity” in location of early voting venues.
Democrats denounced the decision, aguing that it thwarted the core purpose of the state’s early voting law, which was to foster broad voter participation. They noted that the two Republican-designated sites were not as well served by public transit as Praisner and Lawton.
Their anger mounted after Shalleck disclosed at an Oct. 1 County Council hearing that he and two other Republican members held a conference call with Montgomery GOP chair Michael Higgs prior to the vote. Two weeks later, the board ended dispute by rescinding the relocations and restoring the two early voting sites.
Shalleck said no decisions were made during the call. The election board’s counsel also argued that the phone call was not illegal because there was no quorum as defined by its by-laws: four members, one of whom must be from the minority party.
But the compliance panel disagreed, ruling that the board’s by-laws do not have the force of state law, which defines a quorum as a simple majority. In a six -page opinion, compliance board chair Jonathan Hodgson and memberApril Ishak said that by meeting in private, the three GOP election board members “did not secure the public’s right to observe every stage” in the consideration of a public matter.
“Although we can see that the board members might reasonably have relied on the bylaws provision when they conducted the board's business among themselves, we nonetheless find that the conference call violated the Act,” the opinion said.