The four state legislators for St. Mary’s joined the county commissioners Tuesday night to discuss 13 law proposals for review before the General Assembly’s 2020 session, including the deletion of the St. Mary’s County Open Meetings Act.
The county law, touted by officials as being the most rigorous in the state, had not been substantially changed since its adoption over 40 years ago despite attempts by previous commissioner boards. Last year, however, legislation passed allowing more topics to be discussed in closed sessions and adding the St. Mary’s County Metropolitan Commission, the housing authority and the public library board to the list of public agencies that must abide by the act, as well as legislation encouraging the use of new technology. A request to allow subcommittees to meet behind closed doors was shot down by the county’s delegates last year.
If state legislators approve the request to remove the act, county government would then only have to abide by the state’s open meetings act, which is less restrictive when it comes to meeting transparency.
David Weiskopf, county attorney, reminded the delegation St. Mary’s was the first county with an open meetings act and the rest of the state followed the next year.
“For whatever reason we didn’t fold St. Mary’s into the rest of the state. … What happens with this separate one is we now have two that we have to look at,” he said. “There are minute differences, for example we could set an agenda behind closed doors and administrative functions would be easier.”
Administrative function allows a board to receive a briefing behind closed doors on a variety of topics, some of which are required to be done in public under the local act. Under the state’s open meetings act, subcommittees are also allowed to conduct business in private.
“As the sponsoring commissioner for this I agree with everything the county attorney said,” Commissioner Eric Colvin (R) said. “[Former] senator [Roy] Dyson did a great job writing it and then he voted to approve the state’s open meetings act, so he obviously approved of the one every other county in the state is using right now.”
However, when commissioners were first publicly discussing their legislative proposals a few weeks ago, Dyson said in an interview the state’s law is weaker than the county’s, which he believes is why officials are pushing for the switch.
While the law “ties officials’ hands a bit since they can’t have secret meetings,” Dyson said they have to be up front, which is good for the public, as well as the politicians when they leave office.
“It’s harder to hide nefarious acts,” the former senator said.
Del. Matt Morgan (R-St. Mary’s) said at the meeting he’s “conscious of the historical precedent” of the county’s act.
“I think people in the community are very proud that sunshine laws actually originated in St. Mary’s County and we led the state on being transparent in state government,” he said.
Commissioner John O’Connor (R) mentioned there has been some issues with subcommittees meeting during the COVID-19 pandemic because of the “logistics based on how we work the open meetings.”
Morgan said he’s “apprehensive” about changing the law since if the state ever went in a different direction, “it’s safe to know St. Mary’s would still be operating under a pretty tight and transparent law.”
He suggested tweaking the act to make some processes easier rather than getting rid of it altogether.
“I know it does jumble up your meetings but I think we can make changes that directly effect some things … as far as Mr. Weiskopf’s job, that’s why he gets paid the big bucks,” the delegate stated, before saying he would take the legislation in front of the whole delegation for a formal vote.
When it came time for public comment, several residents spoke against the removal of the county’s open meetings act.
Jamie Raley of Avenue pointed out without the county’s open meetings act, items can be added to an agenda last minute, not giving enough time for citizens to react or prepare for it.
“I can see both sides,” school board member Rita Weaver of Dameron said, adding that, “At this point you’re the county commissioners but we don’t know what thoughts or who will be in your seat in the future.”
She mentioned although the other 23 jurisdictions in Maryland follow the state’s open meetings act, “St. Mary’s is not like the others; we are unique.”
Weaver encouraged commissioners to “continue to engage citizens” and “remain transparent.”
The delegation discussed with commissioners 12 other legislative proposals as well, including the decoupling of the St. Mary’s Metropolitan Commission debt from the county’s debt, reducing the amount of debt MetCom can incur, authority to enact a building excise tax, authority to increase the public accommodation tax from 5% to 7%, a $750,000 bond bill for the repair and reconstruction of the Brenton Bay pond and dam, allowance of body worn cameras on animal control officers, allowance of golf carts on Old Horse Landing Road, the establishment of an on-site consumption permit for some distilleries, moving responsibility of bingo licensing permits out of the sheriff’s office, to remove the termination date of the real property transfer tax, authority to issue up to $34.7 million in public facility bonds, authority to enact a building excise tax to replace a developmental impact fee and updating language within the county human relations commission.
During public comment, Deb Rey, a former Republican delegate, said she disagreed with seven of the 13 proposals, but spoke in favor of body worn cameras for animal control officers and the transfer of bingo licensing permits.
Bert Gagnon of Old Horse Landing Road called in to support legislation allowing golf carts on that county road, along with Karen Buckler, who claimed she regularly drives her golf cart on the road anyway.
Sen. Jack Bailey (R-St. Mary’s, Calvert) said “as we get to Annapolis this year, things are going to be different than they have been in the past.”
The state’s 90-day legislative session is set to start on Jan. 13. This year’s General Assembly ended abruptly due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Bailey noted the number of bills senators will be able to introduce will be limited and although that does not apply to local bills, it will apply to “additional things we might have been looking at.”