On Feb. 3 the Maryland Open Meetings Compliance Board ruled on a complaint the Kent Pilot filed against the Chestertown Town Council for conducting a closed meeting on Nov. 20 to discuss the decade’s old heating oil spill at the hospital that experts and town officials say pose a threat to the town’s drinking water supply.
The water plant sits just 1,100 feet downhill from the spill that has been labeled the largest single spill in Maryland history.
The Board found that the council violated the Open Meetings Act when a livestream of the meeting failed to broadcast in real-time online.
Town officials claimed technical difficulties with the livestream, which the board did not accept as an excuse.
The public had a right not to show up “to a locked door” due to technical difficulties, the board ruled.
While the livestream failed, the ZOOM meeting was working correctly and everyone Mayor Chris Cerino wanted at the meeting was there. The public and press were uncharacteristically excluded.
In attendance were officials from Maryland Department of the Environment and University of Maryland Shore Regional Health, the two agencies in charge of the cleanup and tasked with making certain the estimated 80,000 gallons of heating oil that remains in the ground at the spill site never reaches the water plant.
These two agencies have come under fire from local residents and the Town over the years for a lack of transparency and communication, particularly over controversial cleanup methods employed by Shore Health that have unnerved residents and the town’s own utilities manager.
The board ruled that there was no violation when Cerino chose not to invite the public or the press to the Zoom meeting for the question and comment period, which has been customary after town meetings — even in the age of COVID-19.
But the town departed from its own precedent and stood on its rights of noncooperation on the most important environmental issue ever to face the town.
The Kent Pilot believes the town missed a golden opportunity to practice the dialogue, openness and transparency town officials have clamored for since the controversial cleanup programs began a decade ago.
Cerino and Ward 1 Councilman David Foster have been calling for transparency and open discussion for many years following incidents with the cleanup process that were not communicated to the town and created further mistrust of the two agencies.
Residents have expressed concern over the years about what would happen to property values if the water plant became contaminated. And questions abound whether an agreement struck between the town and Shore Health in 2016 would really protect the town’s interest or simply provide an escape hatch for the responsible party, Shore Health, in the event of contamination.
The agreement brokered in 2016 between the town and Shore Health has been questioned because it contains a rebuttable presumption that starts with the premise that any future contamination of the water plant would not be a result of the oil spill absent proof, creating a steep and expensive climb for the town to prove the source of the contamination.
Putting it plainly: the agreement was a bad deal for the residents of Chestertown. Shore Health acquired the Kent & Queen Anne’s Hospital with eyes wide open and assumed the responsibility for the oil spill. However, the agreement ultimately puts the burden on the people of Chestertown to protect the water, which could come at great cost if the water plant ever had to be relocated.
The questionable agreement is one of the reasons that prompted Ward 1 Councilman David Foster to contact a high powered environment law firm to look into the consent agreements on behalf of the town to see if the two agencies are living up to them — and if there are additional actions the town can take to protect the water supply.
The law firm has offered its services pro bono, but they too were unable to attend the meeting.
Cerino made it clear in a previous meeting that he did not want to antagonize Shore Health by engaging a law firm. This demonstrates a severe lack of leadership considering what’s at stake.
The Chestertown Town Council should commit to transparency on this issue. A good start would be a public forum where the Town’s environmental and legal professionals, and representatives from the two agencies, can take questions and hear the public’s concerns.