By now, some of you have heard that the Charles County government is looking into a concern raised by Debra Zimmerman Murphey (my wife and a Port Tobacco resident) about an alleged “Open Meetings Act’” violation. It pertains to a Charles County Planning Commission subcommittee meeting during which four planning commission members – usually considered a quorum – were assembled on Jan. 4, 2011. So far, accessible public records do not show that proper notification, or “public notice” that is in sync with state and local rules, was provided.
That meeting resulted in a vote that sent this ERRA amendment to the full planning commission for consideration, and it was later passed by the PC. (The ERRA used to be referred to as the Port Tobacco Environmental Recovery Zone or “ERZ”).
This new zone could potentially affect the entire Port Tobacco watershed and the county’s rural and agricultural zones, allowing for major density increases of up to nine times, in exchange for an approved environmental improvement. *Please note that PC member Steve Bunker, who was on the subcommittee, voted in opposition, asking that it be considered through the 2012 comprehensive-plan update process.
Ms. Murphey and I attended that Jan. 4, 2011, PC subcommittee meeting after hearing about it through “the grapevine.” No one tried to throw us out and we were allowed to ask some questions – but let’s be clear about this: Two people, and a few others who attended and provided input at the subcommittee level, do not make up “the public.” People also need to know that open meetings rules guarantee notice and access, not necessarily participation. Still, the idea in a democracy is that the public can follow the deliberation and discussions tied to important government decisions.
But it wasn’t until Ms. Murphey started to dig into the details, in preparation for the recent BOC meeting, that she realized there may not have been public notice and she wanted to alert county government to this. Initially, the idea of a subcommittee of three seemed the reason, because public notice is not required in this instance (when there isn’t a quorum).
Still, this kind of “technicality” is important to parse: How does the average citizen gauge – and easily follow – what is happening, if “notice” and access to “public business” and decision-making is guaranteed in certain circumstances, but not in others? While legalities, rules and process may not always guarantee this kind of open decision-making, we hope that this allegation, under examination, will further widen the sphere of county government trust and integrity concerning what happens in public.
Ms. Murphey says: “When delving into this issue, it struck me: Is it typical or common practice for these subcommittees of three to be set up and then additional PC members regularly attend – because wouldn’t there be a presumption that a quorum could therefore happen in these cases? Seems like a safe bet to let the public have access to important decision-making, and use the most open approach and notice as a reliable standard.”
WATCH the video, which features an excerpt from our interview with Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, 1,000 Friends of Maryland.
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