CHESTERTOWN - Was the MDTA's response to an open meeting complaint put together by people who were in the dark about the facts?
Or did Maryland Transportation Authority bureaucrats hide information from the Open Meetings Compliance Board – leaving the facts out of their letter?
In January a complaint was filed about a Sept. 26 secret meeting. The MDTA's Feb. 21 written response included open session minutes, closed session minutes (which remained confidential), and a series of statements about how a secret Sept. 26 meeting was conducted.
It did not include anything to establish one important fact: when the eight MDTA board members were notified to call in for the Sept. 26 teleconference.
But e-mails exist, and they paint a different picture than what the MDTA response stated.
In the response of Feb. 21, an MDTA lawyer wrote: "MDTA posted notice of the September 26, 2011 meeting on its website a few hours before the meeting occurred. Despite Mr. O'Donnell's allegations, this meeting was scheduled to occur only a few hours before it took place, and prompt notice was provided to the public."
The MDTA board members knew about the meeting three days before it happened. That is, according to the MDTA, 92 is "a few" hours.
That information is in e-mails obtained May 1 by the Kent County News through a Public Information Act request.
Janice Fratantuono, special assistant to Secretary of Transportation Beverley Swaim-Staley, sent an e-mail on the afternoon of Sept. 23:
"All: The Secretary/ Chairman would like to have a closed meeting over the phone on Monday Sept 26th at 12:30 p.m. The purpose is to discuss/approve a personnel matter."
According to meeting records, all eight members called in to a teleconference at 12:35 p.m. the following Monday, Sept. 26, where they apparently voted unanimously to hire Harold Bartlett as the MDTA's executive secretary. The public was excluded from the entire meeting and no minutes were ever published.
Even if the meeting was short and the vote unanimous, state law cannot be ignored.
Cheryl Sparks, the MDTA's media relations director, has said the MDTA board has no obligation to report who moved and seconded the vote to hire Bartlett; whether or not it was unanimous; and how long the meeting lasted.
Most people would think those are mere details, but to the MDTA, they're top-secret data, along with the facts about when the meeting was set up.
The fact is, more than 92 hours went by between 3:49 p.m Friday, when Fratantuono's e-mail went out, and the Monday meeting.
The Friday notice was to board members Jack Basso, William Calhoun, Mary Halsey, Michael Whitson, Walter Woodford Jr., Bradley Mims, Mike Lewin and Louise Hoblitzell.
They all called in on Monday at the appointed time.
Next, as far as public notice, someone at the MDTA waited about 85 hours to publish the meeting notice on its website. It appeared at an unknown time on Monday morning.
The Feb. 21 letter to the Open Meetings Compliance Board has no explanation for the delay; just the meeting was scheduled "a few hours" before it happened and so the notice went up a few hours before 12:30 p.m. on Monday. Nothing more specific.
For the record, Opinion 8 OMCB 46 held this wasn't good enough public notice anyway, for other reasons.
Perhaps significantly, copies of the complaint and response were not sent to members of the MDTA board itself. They are the ones actually responsible for violating the law, according to the March Compliance Board findings; or to MDTA board chairwoman and Swaim-Staley (also responsible, as the presiding officer), who called the secret meeting.
The response was submitted by Sherita Harrison, an assistant attorney general assigned to the MDTA, with copies to Valerie J. Smith, MDTA principal counsel and Kimberly Millender, deputy counsel.
Swaim-Staley called the meeting, and is responsible for her board abiding by the law. She might have been concerned about getting the facts straight, and telling the OMCB she had a meeting notice e-mailed more than three days before the secret session. But maybe she was left in the dark.
Executive Secretary Harold Bartlett was not included either. While he may put together each meeting agenda, he's a staff member and not personally on the hook for Open Meetings Act compliance.
With the executive secretary left out, it is no surprise that talking about their repeated Open Meetings Act violations has been on the board's agenda precisely once since 2009, for 15 minutes, in a closed session.
Black is Back
Parts of the e-mails are blacked out. It's an echo of the authority's behavior seen repeatedly since 2009.
Someone in the MDTA bureaucracy feels the appointed individuals responsible for Maryland's toll roads and bridges and the Intercounty Connector, with nearly $3 billion in debt to banks and about $400 million in toll revenues each year, mustn't be e-mailed by anyone except an inner circle.
Their addresses appear as jbasso_; RevDrCalhoun _; louiehobb_; mwhitson_; richard.c.lewin_; or as e-mail nicknames.
The law allows blacking out home phone and address for government employees, but not e-mail addresses, according to the Maryland Public Information Act Manual 12th edition, released in October 2011 by the Office of the Attorney General. It gives a few very specific exceptions to the rule, as in student records.
Sparks was asked twice by e-mail to provide a precise reference to the part of the law that allows censoring a public official's e-mail address. Any government office has to provide a specific reason supported by law for blacking out any parts of public documents.
There was no response from Sparks except, "The email addresses redacted were non-state email addresses."
There's no such category in the Public Information Act. In fact the e-mail address of citizens who send e-mail to officials or receive e-mail from them cannot be removed from documents as the law now stands.
The claim it's a "private" e-mail address is not supported by an attorney general's opinion. In 81 Op. Att'y Gen. 140 (1996), e-mail discussing public matters via public hardware is a public record, and e-mail discussing public matters via private e-mail is a public record.
But the real message is that these paid, appointed officials who have absolute control over how much money in tolls you pay are not to be bothered by citizens – at least those who don't know them personally.
Sparks wrote, "The Executive Secretary is responsible for daily management and operations of the MDTA and may be contacted directly through an MDTA email address. The Members may also be reached through the Executive Secretary."