1/18/13 FNP editorial on New Market process: Skirting open meetings

Skirting open meetings

Originally published January 18, 2013

By ed

We’re glad New Market’s attorney, William Wantz, put the brakes Wednesday night on two massive annexations, but not because we support or oppose them — that’s a matter for the town to decide.What concerns us are some of the maneuvers by town leaders that make it look like they’re trying to skirt the Open Meetings Act, a state law dedicated to ensuring we all have full and thorough access to government officials when they make decisions, most of which involve spending our tax money.

At issue in this case are two parcels of land — the 262-acre Smith-Cline and 134-acre Delaplaine properties — that, added to New Market’s boundaries, would double the town’s size and could add nearly 1,000 new houses.

New Market’s leaders know annexation proposals are controversial. In a 2007 referendum, in a vote of 148-105, residents shot down plans to annex the Smith and Cline farms after the public objected. The process dragged out over months and was extremely controversial; tempers flared on both sides. That was a tough, open and necessary debate, one that seems to be missing in this latest push to expand the town’s limits.

Take two examples where New Market’s leadership walked a fine line about notifying its residents and other interested parties.

On Jan. 10, the day of the planning commission hearing, the annexation discussion was added to the agenda at 10 a.m. The hearing was at 7 p.m. — and the planning commissioners voted to support the annexations that night. If you were interested in attending and making your opinion known, pro or con, but worked out of the county or had some other commitment, you were probably out of luck.

A planned vote on the annexations, listed innocuously enough as a “discussion,” was added to Thursday’s Town Council agenda only the day before the 7 p.m. meeting. That’s where Wantz, who is apparently listening to residents worried about the annexation, told council members, “We want to do this right, and we want to do this in a way that doesn’t cause harm.”

These meetings were not advertised even remotely adequately. In the case of the vote, the lack of notification was particularly egregious. Another public hearing has been scheduled for next month.

Scheduling the discussion suddenly on the day of the hearing or day before by adding it to the agenda at the last minute is government’s cowardly end run around the law to mute opposition in sometimes controversial decisions. Sadly, under the Open Meetings Act, it’s not illegal. But it’s certainly not within the spirit of the law. We’re not sure if an intentional suppression of opinion was what happened in the case of the annexations, or whether it was an overly hasty attempt to move this issue ahead. Either way, we’d urge Mayor Winslow F. Burhans III and the Town Council to consider the importance of allowing enough time for the public to be present at and speak at the next hearing.

Taken alone, the lack of notification could be considered just an oversight. But there are a couple of more points of concern.

Burhans says he has been meeting with anyone who wants to learn more. They have been one-on-one meetings in private homes. They were set up using his private business email, which he includes on nearly all of his town correspondence, and not the email he has through the town.

Why private email? Presumably because government emails are public information and subject to public information requests. Using a private email to communicate is the 21st-century equivalent to meeting in a smoky back room behind closed doors. Meeting one-on-one is similarly questionable.

Finally, in an explanation of the late notice to one of our reporters, Burhans indicated that letters from him and other council members were sufficient notice — except they didn’t contain a time, date or address for the meetings. This is hardly the “reasonable advance notice” required by the law. In fact, the Open Meetings Act manual published by the Maryland attorney general (and available on his website) clearly states: “Unless some unusual circumstance makes it impracticable to do so, the public body should give a written notice that includes the date, time, and place of its meeting.”

We hope these aren’t intentional strategies to subvert proper public comment and avoid the kind of divisive — but necessary — public debate that took months to resolve in 2007 and led to that special election referendum. But that’s how it appears, and in politics, even small-town politics, appearance is everything.

Hearings on this have not allowed for a full and thorough debate. We doubt a majority of residents’ voices have been adequately heard. That needs to happen before a decision as monumental as doubling the town’s size is voted on by the council.

http://www.fredericknewspost.com/sections/opinion/display_editorial.htm?StoryID=145789#.UPmok4njnxY