Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Baltimore Speed Camera Committee Violated Open Meetings Act

The Maryland Open Meetings Compliance Board has issued a finding that the City of Baltimore's "speed camera task force" violated the "open meetings act" by failing to meet the terms of a state law which requires meetings of a "public body" to be open to the public.

Baltimore City convened a "task force" to review complaints about its speed and red light camera programs last year.  The task force held several meetings throughout 2012 and 2013 to examine these issues, meetings which were subject to the terms of Maryland's Open Meetings Act because the task force comprised city employees as well as two members of the public who were not city employees.  A complaint had been filed with the state Open Meetings Compliance Board by three members of the Maryland Drivers Alliance after members of the press were excluded from a meeting held at a facility owned by speed camera contractor Brekford Corp, and after the committee issued draft recommendations which included a call for "media restraints" to be placed on future task force meetings.  The city also failed to respond in a timely manner to a request for copies of minutes of the task force minutes.

The complaint made three allegations:

  •    failure to provide "reasonable advance notice" of task force meetings to the public
  •    the improper exclusion the public and the press from meetings, particularly a March 20th meeting held at a facility of Brekford Corp
  •    failure to keep and provide minutes of meetings in a timely manner

The board found that the city failed to comply with the act in all three of these areas.

Read OMA Compliance Board Opinion

Several weeks after the complaint had been filed, the city did produce some "minutes" which it claimed were still in draft form at the time they were originally requested.  However the minutes produced lacked basic information such as the names of attendees or a record that the minutes from prior meetings had been "adopted". The request by the Maryland Drives Alliance member who asked for the minutes was made approximately six months after the first meeting, yet the minutes were apparently still "draft" minutes.   The OMA board agreed that the minutes were not in compliance with the Act.

Baltimore City also claimed that notice of the meetings had been posted to the city website, and produced documents which they claimed showed that two of the meeting dates had been posted.  However the city failed to produce any documentation showing that the other meetings had been posted, and the compliance board found that evidence of the meetings dates, including the recent meeting on March 20th, could not be found on the city website and that the meeting dates were not mentioned in city press releases.

Finally, the OMA board agreed that the press had been improperly excluded from the meeting at the Brekford facility on March 20.  The city claimed that the task force meeting had adorned prior to entering the Brekford facility and that the meeting ended when it learned that the press had been excluded.  However AAA Mid Atlantic, who has a representative sitting on the task force, disputed this claim and said that the meeting had continued and that they had questioned the exclusion of the press at the time.  The OMA board wrote "a public body must refuse to meet at a private facility when the owner will not admit the public. The Act would be meaningless if it were interpreted to allow public bodies to meet secretly at private facilities."

The findings of the OMA compliance board are largely symbolic since the largest penalty which can be imposed on a local government for violating the act is a $100 fine.  Maryland Drivers Alliance member Louis Willen stated to the Baltimore Sun that "What we really want is for the task force to comply with the law.  The speed camera program would be trusted a lot more if there weren't so much secrecy."   City officials have stated that they will comply with the findings of the OMA board.