Responding to a complaint from the Kent Pilot, the Maryland Open Meetings Compliance Board ruled on Feb. 3 that the Chestertown Town Council violated the Open Meetings Act when the livestream of a council meeting with Maryland Department of the Environment and University of Maryland Shore Regional Regional Health failed to work properly and denied public access to a live quorum of the council.
The meeting took place on Nov. 20 to discuss protecting the town’s water supply from a decade’s old heating oil spill at the hospital, where 80,000 gallons is estimated to remain in the ground just 1,100 feet uphill from the town’s drinking water plant.
The meeting in large part was to address the poor communication and a lack of transparency from the two agencies over cleanup methods that have strained the working relationship with the Town Council and the town’s utilities manager for many years.
The Town responded to the board citing technical difficulties with the Nov. 20 meeting due to “unforeseen events” when a staff member of the Town was filling in for another staff member who normally conducts the ZOOM meetings.
“The Council admits that the staff member realized the mistake an hour into the two-hour meeting but took no action, apparently to avoid interrupting or losing the recording in the process,” the compliance board wrote in their opinion.
In the complaint the Kent Pilot claimed it texted a council member to inform that the livestream was not visible to the public, but no council member was identified in the complaint.
“We are unable to resolve from the submissions the factual dispute about whether a council member was aware of the problem with the livestream,” the board wrote. “In any event, the submissions establish that a staff member discovered the problem during the meeting.”
The board implored the Town Council to be better prepared in future meetings to avoid what happened on Nov. 20.
“To avoid unintentional violations in the future, we recommend that public bodies take reasonable steps to confirm that the livestream is working before proceeding with a meeting and work in tandem with staff to address technological issues as they arise and convey them to the presiding officer. In this era of remote-only meetings, such a practice is akin to making sure members of the public are not kept out by a locked door.”
The Kent Pilot also stated in its complaint that the Council failed to allow the press access to the ZOOM meeting, which has become standard practice by the town since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The board ruled that the Kent Pilot erred in its assumption that the press was entitled to ask questions at public meetings.
“The Town departed from that practice for the November 20, 2020 meeting,” the board wrote. “The Town responds that neither the press nor the public has a right under the Act to ask questions or otherwise participate in meetings.”
“We have frequently observed that the right to attend and observe a meeting under the Act does not create a right to speak at that meeting,” the opinion said. “Ordinarily, the decision of whether to allow members of the public to speak—or, in this case, members of the press to ask questions—is up to the public body’s presiding officer…As a result, a complaint about the manner in which the Council did—or did not—take questions during its meeting does not state a violation of the Act.”