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Wicomico Parent Files a State Complaint Against the WCBOE for Open Meetings Act Violations



A parent filed a complaint to the Maryland Open Meetings Compliance Board:


DELIVERED VIA EMAIL AND CONFIRMATION CERTIFIED U.S. MAIL


November 11, 2021


Open Meetings Compliance Board

c/o Attorney General's Office

200 St. Paul Place

Baltimore, MD 21202


Re: November 9, 2021 Wicomico County Board of Education Meeting Public Lockout


The Wicomico County Board of Education (“Board”) held an in-person Board meeting on November 9, 2021 to take public comment but restricted who could attend the meeting. Only those registered at the door to comment could enter the meeting room (no more than 5 persons) and only for a portion of the meeting. Of The 5 persons allowed to enter were only permitted to make their comment and asked to leave to allow entry for the next person. This practice violated the Open Meetings Act (“Act”), which generally requires that “the public be allowed to observe” a public body’s meetings. § 3-102(a). The Board violated the Act by limiting who could enter the meeting room. Recording or live streaming the meeting does not provide an opportunity for live public attendance and observation. The Board assumes that every citizen has the technological resources and Internet access, which they do not. Broadband access is limited in Wicomico County. The lobby of the building contained a TV, but only 9 persons were allowed to enter the lobby, which 2 law enforcement officers, a receptionist, and some faculty consumed a portion of their capacity of 9. Throttling the public is an obstructive tactic, and there is a history of the Board doing so (see Exhibits).


The Board violated § 3-303(a) when it convened a public meeting on November 9, 2021, but restricted access to the meeting room without providing an alternative means of observing the meeting and failed to accommodate the public with reasonable, equal, equitable, and unified access for all to attend and observe (not just those who desired to make a public comment). Citizens were locked outside the building where the meeting was held at 101 Long Ave in Salisbury, Maryland. There were some citizens that slipped in when the door was periodically opened by faculty to call for other registrants. Those who attempted to enter the lobby of the building uninvited were warned by Wicomico County Sheriff's Department deputies that the WCBOE would charge citizens with trespassing if they did not leave (while the meeting was in session). WCBOE faculty such as their Director of Communications and the Director of Transportation took it upon themselves to man security of the foyer between the front door and the lobby.


At this meeting, the Board voted on a major decision to grant a regular frequency of early half-day dismissal from school. Despite our children being more than two years behind in their learning, the Board made a major decision at this meeting to approve this without the right for the public to attend and observe. Instead, citizens were locked out of the Board meeting to be excluded and obstructed. In addition, it was observed that there were attendees that received preferential treatment to bypass the citizens and enter the building (a couple unmasked) and occupied the foyer. Some were not there to make a public comment. In addition, unnecessary Administration consumed the “limited” capacity in the meeting room, giving preferential treatment to the President of the WCEA and a past NAACP official over the citizens.


“We did not expect this turnout” was an excuse to obstruct, as relayed by Kimberly Miles, Assistant Superintendent. They were only met with the same dilemma on January 12, 2021 and September 14, 2021 and when they had a large number of attendees. Citizens simply want to be involved in their child’s education and the school system is using COVID-19 as an excuse to obstruct public access, observation, and participation of its meetings. There is no supporting law to justify these practices as we are not under a state of emergency. The existence of COVID-19 does not obviate the need to satisfy the Maryland Open Meetings Act requirements (See, e.g., 15 OMCB Opinions 5, 6 (2021). The Board’s decision to follow third-party guidance or to adopt an illegal mandate is not justification to violate the Maryland Open Meetings Act.


“An open session means that members of the public are, as a practical matter, able to attend.’” 14 OMCB Opinions 83, 85 (2020) (quoting 1 OMCB Opinions 44, 45 (1993)). “The Maryland Open Meetings Act requires a meeting to be open, it must be open to all.” 2 OMCB Opinions 67, 69 (1999) (emphasis added). See also 42 Opinions of the Attorney General 144, 145 (1957) (“A meeting is public when it is open to the knowledge and view of all individuals in general who wish to attend, without selection or restriction.”). “The Act does not contain an intermediate category of ‘partially open’ meetings, to which some members of the public are admitted and others excluded.” 2 OMCB Opinions at 69 (concluding that a public body violated the Act by admitting the public but excluding the press).” [1]


“When a public body cannot accommodate all of the attendees in the meeting room, we have stated that it should ‘take reasonable steps to enable the overflow crowd to hear the meeting.’” 14 OMCB Opinions 83, 86 (2020) [1]


There were no overflow rooms, nor was a larger venue provided to the public. The Board knowingly did this despite the fact that the prior two evening meetings had a large turnout of attendees. As a result, the last evening meeting on September 20, 2021 was held at the Wicomico High School auditorium. Reasonable accommodation wasn’t provided until the public came out in large numbers and demanded a larger venue at the September 14, 2021 Board meeting (which the Board meeting was cancelled and rescheduled). The Board has a day meeting and an evening meeting every other month. Evening meetings are the only time most parents are able to attend as they work or have commitments during in the day. The Board knows this, and they use the small number of attendees of their daytime meeting as an excuse as to not get a larger venue for their following evening meeting. This is an obstructive tactic, and the revolving door of the Board continues to look for ways to avoid reasonable and consistent accommodation when a large auditorium is just an 1/8 mile across the campus on the same property.


“When a public body cannot accommodate all of the attendees in the meeting room, we have stated that it should ‘take reasonable steps to enable the overflow crowd to hear the meeting.’” 14 OMCB Opinions 83, 86 (2020) (quoting 10 OMCB Opinions 40, 42 (2016)). For example, the public body can move a speaker into a hall outside the meeting room, 10 OMCB Opinions 18, 19-20 (2016), broadcast a live video stream to television monitors in overflow rooms, 10 OMCB Opinions 40, 41-43 (2016), allow the public to listen to the proceeding by telephone, 14 OMCB Opinions 83, 84 (2020), broadcast the meeting on a local cable channel, id., or provide a live video stream on the internet, id. The Board offered none of these alternatives for observing its May 25, 2021, hearing.” [1]


The lobby contained a television of the meeting, which the crowd of 60+ citizens outside could not view or listen from approximately 36+ feet away from the locked front door. This by no means was “reasonable accommodation,” but their existence of the TV was tantalizing in nature as onlookers pressed up against the glass of the front door.


Citizens requested that the meeting be rescheduled and a larger venue be selected as in the last time the evening Board meeting was held. The Board ignored the request of the citizens and proceeded with their meeting. They concluded their meeting of all agenda items with no reasonable accommodation to the public. The Maryland Open Meetings Act specifies that the citizens have the absolute right to attend and observe the public meeting and afforded a meaningful opportunity to observe the Board’s business. This means in person and in real time.


Darren Lombardo

Wicomico County Parent



EXHIBITS:




https://www.delmarvaptc.org/post/wicomico-county-Board-of-education-public-meeting-lock-out


https://www.delmarvaptc.org/post/wcboe-information-officer-surveils-parents-to-supply-photos-and-info-to-media


https://www.delmarvaptc.org/post/citizens-denied-public-comments-by-the-wicomico-county-Board-of-education-at-monthly-meeting


References


[1] 15 Official Opinions of the Compliance Board 85 (2021)



We encourage you to contact the WCBOE board members to let them know how you feel about them obstructing the citizens from attending their board meetings and them voting on major decisions that effect our children's education without parent involvement.


WCBOE Board Members


Donald Fitzgerald - dfitzger@wcboe.org

Gene Malone - gmalone@wcboe.org

Allen Brown - abrown@wcboe.org

John Palmer - jpalmer@wcboe.org

Tonya Lewis - tlewis@wcboe.org

Michael Murray - mmurray@wcboe.org

Ann Suthowski - asuthowsk@wcboe.org


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