The Town of Chevy Chase’s council violated rules for holding a closed meeting last year when it interviewed a law firm it was considering retaining.
The Town Council did not follow the correct procedures for meeting in closed session at a Nov. 26, 2013, meeting, according to a March 20 opinion from the state Open Meetings Compliance Board. The council was meeting with an attorney it was considering hiring to advocate the town’s position on the Purple Line light-rail system, which is planned to run through Chevy Chase on its 16-mile route from Bethesda to New Carrollton.
The Open Meetings Act requires government bodies to make most of their meetings open to the public. The act outlines 14 topics that government bodies may discuss behind closed doors, such as personnel matters, pending litigation and collective bargaining negotiations.
Before government bodies can meet in closed session, however, they must meet in public, open session to vote on whether to go into closed session and provide some information about what they will discuss. They must also provide information about the closed session in the minutes of the next open session, according to the state board’s ruling.
At its Nov. 26 meeting, the Chevy Chase Town Council was discussing matters that fell within the 14 topics allowed in closed session, the board ruled, but it did not follow the right procedures for going into a closed session. The council gave notice that it would hold a closed meeting, the ruling said, but it did not hold an open meeting before the closed meeting or vote to go into closed session. It also did not include the required information about the closed session in the minutes of the next open meeting, the ruling said.
In February, the Town Council voted to hire the law and lobbying firm Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney to represent the town’s interests in discussions about the Purple Line.
The board’s opinion said that nothing suggests the council kept the Nov. 26 meeting secret or improperly discussed matters the public was entitled to hear. If the council had followed the right procedures for going into closed session, the opinion said, it might have avoided having a complaint filed against it.
The board issued its ruling in response to a complaint from Ronit A. Dancis, a vice president of the pro-Purple Line Action Committee for Transit. The group has criticized the Town of Chevy Chase’s hiring of the law firm and called for another public hearing on the matter. It also filed a public information request seeking paperwork on the town’s agreement with Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney.
The Action Committee for Transit released a copy of the board’s opinion Monday along with a press release saying the town “broke the law when its town council met in secret.”
Later that day, the town issued a press release acknowledging that the compliance board “noted some technical deficiencies” and saying the town intends to adhere to “proper administrative procedures” in the future. The release emphasized the board’s finding that the topics discussed were allowed in closed session under the law.
According to the Open Meetings Act, when the compliance board determines a government body has violated the act, a member of the body must announce the violation and summarize the opinion at the next public meeting. A majority of the members must also sign a copy of the opinion and return it to the board. The next Town Council meeting is scheduled for April 9.