—– By: Ann Costantino —–
Update: The Open Meetings Act Compliance Board concluded in December 2019 that the Baltimore County School Board Nominating Commission did not violate the Open Meetings Act.
The Baltimore County School Board Nominating Commission (BCSBNC) met in a public session on Monday to discuss bylaws the group is creating to help govern commission operations.
But three-and-a-half hours after the conclusion of the productive, yet uneventful, meeting – which was attended by a Baltimore Post reporter – the commission’s chairman, Aaron Plymouth, may have violated Maryland’s Open Meetings Act when he continued a portion of the scheduled meeting through emails to commission members on a controversial topic not brought up during the public session.
The Maryland Attorney Generals Guide to the Open Meetings Act states that emails, when sent to at least a quorum – the minimum number of members of an assembly who must be present at any of its meetings to make proceedings of a meeting valid –“might constitute a meeting if the emails are so close in time as to show that a quorum was in on the discussion together.”
In July, the Maryland Open Meetings Act Compliance Board further defined emails exchanged among members of government bodies in an unrelated case involving email communications between Talbot County Council members.
The compliance board concluded in its opinion on such emails and the Open Meetings Act (Act), “(T)hat when the sequence of electronic communications is such that a collective deliberation among a quorum has occurred… we will deem the public body to have held a meeting subject to the Act. And, once again, we strongly discourage the exchange of electronic communications on public business, no matter how carefully structured to avoid the presence of a quorum, as violative of the goals that the Act was intended to achieve.”
The compliance board is currently reviewing whether Plymouth was compliant with the Open Meetings Act at Monday’s meeting.
Following the 6:30pm to 8:00pm public meeting, Plymouth sent emails to commissioners, informing them about a calendar issue and the new addition to the commission – the BCSBNC Ethics Committee “formed largely because of the complaint registered against Commissioner Darenberg by three Members-At-Large of the Board of Education of Baltimore County on June 10,” Plymouth said in the 11:38pm email.
In June, when tensions ran high during and following a contentious superintendent search process for the next permanent leader of Baltimore County Public Schools, some Baltimore County schools employees, lawmakers and BCSBNC commissioner, Michael Darenberg, aired frustrations on social media.
Darenberg asked some employees to resign, stating, “If you do, we stop digging up dirt on you and you can move to another school system and take advantage of them.”
In response, Delegate Robin Grammer, an Essex Republican, said, “No deal. Hang them high and leave it for the village to see.”
Following Grammer and Darenberg’s comments, three Baltimore County school board members wrote to Plymouth and the commission, admonishing the men for the comments.
Two chapters of the NAACP then asked Gov. Larry Hogan – who had appointed the commissioners –for Darenberg’s removal from the commission.
Grammer’s comments were perceived by the NAACP, some lawmakers and school board members as referencing public lynching of African Americans in which African American men and women were historically hanged publicly.
Grammer said previously that his comments were not racially motivated, having nothing to do with lynching or of African Americans – but of exposure of all employees – and he said he was suggesting that all employees be held accountable for their actions and not be permitted to merely slink away as Darenberg suggested in his opening Facebook post.
Grammer has since apologized for the word choice and removed the Facebook comment.
Darenberg declined to comment for this story.
But despite two commissioners’ attempts to extend the meeting past its 8:oopm conclusion on Monday, Plymouth did not take a vote to extend the public session and adjourned the meeting on time.
Plymouth told The Baltimore Post that he was sensitive to a commissioner’s need to leave directly after the meeting and that he did not bypass the motions intentionally. He said, “For some reason, I just didn’t attend to it as I usually would.”
As for the post-meeting emails, Plymouth said, “It was simply … one of the things I had hoped to announce… In my head, I saw it simply as information…. It’s ‘Aaron Plymouth’s’ style of communication,” he said. “It’s my style of transparency. (It) was what I had hoped to do, but I didn’t get a chance to.”
Plymouth also said that he was unaware that the emails – following the meeting – could have violated the Open Meetings Act. He said, “If that’s the case, then I am in violation of the Open Meetings Act, but it was not my intention.”
Plymouth continued in the 11:38pm email, “As you know, the meeting lasted longer than I had anticipated. Also, I was not monitoring the time as it elapsed. As a consequence, the meeting adjourned at 8:00 pm. This is being shared with you in the spirit of transparency and with the inten(t) of accountability, “ he said in the email and reiterated during a phone interview with The Baltimore Post.
In June, when Darenberg wrote the Facebook post, he referenced undefined Baltimore County schools employees who worked under former superintendent Dallas Dance who – last year – served four months in jail after pleading guilty to perjury for failing to disclose nearly $150,000 of income he earned as a consultant while leading the school system.
Other than Dance and Robert Barrett, a former government and community liaison for the school system who was also convicted last year – but for unrelated tax crimes – no other Baltimore County schools employees have been charged with any crimes, and a contested audit of the system’s procurement practices did not find any criminal wrongdoing.
A former school board member challenged the use of the term “audit” since a consulting arm of audit firm, UHY, which was originally hired to conduct the audit, provided consulting services using consulting standards.
In April 2019, UHY Advisors provided its final report to the district which included recommendations for improvement in which the company – in consultation with school system staff – decided what was or was not a violation of law or school policy.
But preceding the intended audit, and while a Baltimore Post reporter had been actively requesting financial records for dozens of employees – some who had traveled with Dance during his consulting work – 2,600 financial disclosure statements were destroyed by the school system’s law office.
The records were discarded within the system’s retention policy for the records which dictates how long Baltimore County school administrators must maintain the documents, which is for no fewer than four years.
But records obtained by The Baltimore Post showed that the financial documents had remained untouched for the 21 years the system’s law office stored the records, until April and August of 2018, leading up to the audit.
In an unrelated matter during the commission meeting on Monday, three members of the commission were presented with volunteer awards for their service on the commission which is responsible for making recommendations to Gov. Larry Hogan for the appointments of four members of the newly created 12-member partially elected school board.
Last year was the first year voters in Baltimore County’s seven council districts elected seven of the school board members.
Along with a student member, who is nominated by peers and recommended to Hogan for appointment, four applicants are recommended to the governor for appointment by the commission that Plymouth chairs.
Of the commissioners who worked to select the recommendations for Hogan last year, Elisa Hartman, William Groth III and Tobi D. Atkinson Pulley were each presented with an award from Baltimore County Schools’ newest director of Governmental Relations and Constituency Services, Tony Baysmore.
Baysmore presented the honors on behalf of outgoing District 42A Delegate Stephen Lafferty.
Following the award presentation, Groth made a motion to extend the meeting past 8:00pm. The motion was seconded, but Plymouth made a few remarks and adjourned the meeting instead.
Plymouth said of his decision to send the emails hours later, “(It) was one of things I had hoped to announce… Could it have waited until the next meeting Surely, it could have waited… My intent was not to shield from anybody the information that would have been disclosed,” he said.
“If I had really thought about it more deeply, I would not have included that reference in the email,” he said. “My intention is never to bring negative attention to the commission. Never.”