Wednesday, July 9, 2008

State investigates Rockville council retreat under Open Meetings Act

Mayor says city did not violate guidelines by holding closed session

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This story was corrected on July 16, 2008, from its print version.

State officials are investigating the City Council’s June 2 retreat after a resident filed a complaint last month alleging the council violated Maryland’s Open Meetings Act.

Rockville resident Joseph Jordan said he filed the complaint because he believes the idea of holding closed retreats without a facilitator opens the possibility of policy discussion, which is not allowed under the Open Meetings Act.

‘‘The whole idea of this retreat business has gotten out of hand,” Jordan said Monday. ‘‘I’m not saying they’re doing anything devious, but they open themselves to lapse into a discussion of policy.”

Assistant Attorney General William R. Varga sent a letter to Mayor Susan R. Hoffmann on June 27 informing her and the council of the complaint. The council has 30 days to respond.

‘‘Of course this was not a violation of the Open Meetings Act. If it was a violation of the Open Meetings Act, we wouldn’t have done it,” Hoffmann said Monday.

The council held the retreat last month with the original intent of keeping the session closed to discuss interpersonal relationships with each other, Hoffmann has said.

The idea drew criticism from residents and some council members who questioned whether the discussion would veer into public business, violating the Open Meetings Act.

Councilman Piotr Gajewski and Councilwoman Anne M. Robbins did not attend the closed portion of the retreat for the same reasons Jordan outlines in his complaint.

The closed session was attended by Hoffmann, Councilman John B. Britton, Councilwoman Phyllis R. Marcuccio and City Manager Scott Ullery. Minutes were not taken during any portion of the retreat.

Varga said if a meeting is subject to the Open Meetings Act, minutes must be produced.

‘‘Even closed meetings under provisions of the act, there have to be minutes,” Varga said.

In past years, Rockville has held retreats after city elections, held every other November.

The state Open Meetings Act requires a public body to open meetings to the public unless the subject of the meeting falls under one of the exceptions, which include matters pertaining to personnel, legal advice, business or financial transactions, and labor negotiations, among others.

The Open Meetings Compliance Board’s deliberation could take 30 days after receiving all appropriate information from the complainant and the city, according to the Attorney General’s office. Once an opinion is issued, it is merely advisory. The board does not have the power to impose penalties.