The Open Meetings Compliance Board, in response to a complaint against the Talbot County Council, issued an official opinion that breaks with two decades of precedent. Digital communications between officials - not limited to emails and text messages - can now be subject to open meetings laws.
The complaint was filed in response to the Talbot County Council's multi-day deliberation, and eventual action, through texts and email over whether to take a position on two bills before the Maryland General Assembly.
“We conclude that the Council violated the Act when it did not provide the public with an opportunity to observe its deliberations on its position on legislation pending in the General Assembly,” reads the opinion. “We have explained that when the sequence of electronic communications is such that a collective deliberation among a quorum has occurred, with the opportunity for the quorum to interact on public business subject to the Act, actual interaction, and awareness that a quorum is at hand for a specific period of time, we will deem the public body to have held a meeting subject to the Act. And, once again, we strongly discourage the exchange of electronic communications on public business, no matter how carefully structured to avoid the presence of a quorum, as violative of the goals that the Act was intended to achieve.”
MML's analysis of the decision is that the Board has not changed the criteria for compliance with the Open Meetings Act. Rather, the Board found this instance to be so out of line with the intent of the law that it was akin to “[transacting] public business in the dark.”
The League recommends that bodies subject to the Open Meetings Act fully comply with the letter and spirit of the Act and have minimal email or other digital communication on issues that should be deliberated before the public. If you are unsure whether an electronic communication constitutes a public meeting contact your municipal attorney.
Read the full opinion here.