State compliance board probes Public Works? ?pre-meetings?

Local,Jaime Malarkey
A state board is investigating if so-called informal “pre-meetings” of members of Maryland’s Board of Public Works violate open meeting laws.

The Maryland Open Meetings Compliance Board opened an investigation this week after a reporter from the Kent County News filed a citizen complaint about gatherings before the BPW’s regularly scheduled meetings. The meetings have been an occasional tradition for several decades, though Comptroller Peter Franchot recently began skipping them to avoid violating sunshine laws.

The board’s other two members, Gov. Martin O’Malley and Treasurer Nancy Kopp, have continued to meet before the public session.

“I welcome the inquiry of the Open Meetings Compliance Board and hope we can resolve this issue and get back to doing the business of the people in the open and in full view of the people we serve,” Franchot said.

The BPW oversees millions in state contracts and meets about twice a month.

O’Malley and Kopp have said the public is welcome to attend the pre-meetings, which are not advertised or documented with minutes. Howard Freedlander, Maryland’s deputy treasurer for external affairs, said he usually attends the pre-meetings and described them as “social.”

“My experience is that it’s just a chance for the board to catch up,” Freedlander said. “I’ve seen nothing going on at a pre-meeting that doesn’t go on in the board meeting itself.”

The compliance board, a three-member panel appointed by the governor, does not have the authority to enforce the law or impose penalties. William Varga, an assistant attorney general who counsels the board, described it as an “educational tool” designed to help public bodies comply with the Open Meetings Act rather than penalize.

The BPW will file a response by Oct. 15, according to Rick Abbruzzese, an O’Malley spokesman.

Franchot said his decision to skip the pre-meetings was based on an opinion he sought from the Attorney General’s Office.

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