Maryland's open meetings compliance board said this week that it not only found that the University System of Maryland Board of Regents violated the state's open meetings act, but also rejected the idea that the transgressions were "at worst technical."
After the regents convened a secret session in November to discuss the University of Maryland's move to the Big Ten athletic conference, officials acknowledged that they had broken state law by failing to notify the public about the details of the meeting.
Proponents for open government — including journalist Craig O'Donnell and teacher Ralph Jaffe, who filed complaints against the regents — had scoffed at the idea that a board full of experienced public officials advised by a state's attorney could accidentally violate the most basic tenet of the act: State law dictates that the closing of a meeting requires first a public vote to do so.
Yet the advocates' victory could prove mostly hollow. Besides enduring a few harsh words from the compliance board, the regents face no significant punishment. Jaffe said he will continue pushing the regents to hold an open meeting on the Big Ten move to replace the closed sessions. He argues that the panel should face the public even though its vote was one of support and not necessary for the university to switch conferences.
The regents agreed to change their policies after the violation, though — as the open meetings board pointed out — the shift doesn't amount to much more than a promise not to violate the law again.
Perhaps the most telling part of the compliance board's 12-page report comes at the bottom of the last page. Footnote No. 6 refers to a fresh promise from the regents to follow the law and reads, "The revised procedures largely re-state the notice and closings procedures of the Act. ..."
Indeed, the board's new rules say it will "redouble its efforts" to provide notice of even hastily called meetings and follow other parts of the Open Meetings Act.
O'Donnell, in particular, has bemoaned the lack of "teeth" in Maryland's law and had hoped a case involving the Terps' sports program could shine more light on the issue of public access to meetings. Instead, it provided another example of the limited scope of the state's power over people who violate the law.
Baltimore Sun reporter Childs Walker contributed to this article.