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Accountabilityby Brew Editors5:10 pmMay 23, 20160

BDC violated Open Meetings Law by shutting out reporters, board rules

A violation of the Open Meetings Act by the agency that recommended the Port Covington TIF

Above: Susan Yum, public affairs director at the BDC, closes the door on reporters asking to speak with the BDC’s CEO William Cole. (Fern Shen)

The Baltimore Development Corporation violated state law in March when it shut reporters out of two meetings about the Port Covington TIF financing package and failed to disclose its reasons for doing so, the Maryland Open Meetings Compliance Board ruled in a decision released today.

The BDC’s Project Review and Oversight Committee argued that they acted properly in blocking reporters from The Brew, Baltimore Business Journal and Baltimore Sun from two public meetings held on March 9 and March 15 on the unprecedented financing deal for the proposed waterfront development.

The committee had cited an exception in the Maryland Open Meetings Act that allows a public body to close a public meeting “to discuss the marketing of public securities.”

But a review of minutes from the closed meetings found that the BDC panel “was not considering marketing public securities,” according to the opinion written by Open Meetings Compliance Board Chairman Jonathan A. Hodgson and April C. Ishak.

And the topics that were discussed behind closed doors “did not fall within that exception,” Hodgson and Ishak wrote.

In fact, the subjects discussed “were precisely the issues the public is really keen to understand and which we have a duty to report,” said Fern Shen, publisher of  The Brew and one of the reporters barred from the meetings.

The release of today’s ruling did not include any fine or penalty against the BDC, whose board of directors went on to approve the Port Covington TIF application to Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake on March 24.

The application – calling for $660 million in total bond funding for $535 million in infrastructure improvements at Port Covington – was subsequently approved by the Board of Finance and is now before the City Council’s Taxation, Finance and Economic Development Committee. Public hearings will be scheduled soon, Councilman Carl Stokes, chairman of the committee, announced last week.

“We are pleased that the Compliance Board took this step in defense of the First Amendment and the public’s right to know. We will expect the BDC to open its future meetings to the press and public,” Shen said today.

UPDATE: Arnold Williams, the Chair of BDC’s Board of Directors, provided this comment:

“We appreciate the guidance of the Open Meetings Compliance Board, and BDC will continue to strive to comply with the Maryland Open Meetings Act.”

Williams released the minutes from the closed-door meetings, which are now posted on the BDC’s website.

Failure to Disclose

According to the Compliance Board, the group discussed the following matters:

• Memoranda of Understanding “in process with the mayor’s office and the developer” involving affordable and inclusionary housing, workforce development, and support of small local, minority and women-owned business.

• City master plans and the light-rail spur proposed by the developer.

• Other sources of funding for the project and the need to ensure that the developer’s requests for funding from other sources are consistent with other requests being made to the city departments of Transportation and Recreation and Parks.

The Compliance Board, which is part of the Maryland Attorney General’s Office, dismissed the argument that the committee’s discussions could be regarded as subjects that should be closed to the press and public.

“The fact that a TIF proposal might eventually lead to an entity’s marketing of bonds does not mean that a BDC committee may shield from public view its discussions about the developer’s proposed use of the site and the items to be included in the TIF,” Hodgson and Ishak wrote.

City and state bodies are required to issue a written disclosure when they close a public meeting, but the BDC did not do so, the board ruled.

The opinion faulted the agency for not articulating a list of topics that “keep the discussion within the scope of the exception.”

Instead, the written listing by the BDC under such vague categories as “financials” and “numbers analysis” did not inform the public of why the committee had voted to exclude the public from the discussion, the board said.

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