A group seeking answers in the police-involved death of a 19-year-old Greensboro man has accused the Caroline County town’s leaders of illegally changing the rules of council meetings to stifle uncomfortable questions at public sessions.
The Coalition for Justice for Anton Black on Thursday called on the Maryland Open Meetings Compliance Board to examine what the group alleges was the mayor and council’s clandestine decision to stop permitting town residents to speak at council meetings. The coalition said the mayor and council changed the policy without providing the public with notice, in violation of the Maryland Open Meetings Act.
“The very purpose of the Maryland Open Meetings Act is to ensure that our government is not allowed to operate in secret,” the coalition wrote in a complaint it filed with the board with assistance from the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland.
“It (the act) inarguably applies to the Greensboro Town Council, the town’s governing body, whenever a quorum of the council conducts public business,” the coalition said. “We cannot fathom how the mayor and council’s consideration and approval of a new policy restricting the public’s ability to speak to the mayor and council at their meetings could be defined as anything other than ‘public business.’”
The Town of Greensboro issued a statement Friday acknowledging receipt of the complaint and its preparation of “a substantive response.”
“The Town of Greensboro offers members of the public the opportunity to speak at our public meetings,” the statement added. “We fully recognize and value our community’s right to free speech and believe a healthy dialogue is the foundation upon which strong community relations are formed.”
The controversial policy change came to light in March amid the increasingly vocal presence of residents questioning the town’s efforts to investigate the circumstances of Black’s scuffle with police officers outside his mobile home last September; Black died shortly after being handcuffed. Coalition members said they noticed at the March 8 council meeting that the signup sheet for speakers had been removed.
“Although we do not contend that the (Open Meetings Act) guarantees the public a right to comment at public meetings, we do strongly believe that government decisions to alter rules for public comment go to the very heart of what constitutes ‘public business’ and accordingly, that any discussions leading to adoption of such changes are subject to the requirements (of) the (act),” the coalition wrote.
Apparently, “Greensboro’s mayor and council – unhappy with increased public attention and criticism of town operations – went behind closed doors to develop and approve a new rule that will allow them to limit the public’s ability to address and influence elected officials at public meetings,” the coalition added. “The fact that the rule change seems to have been created in retaliation for residents’ activism in addressing the council about the police-involved death of a member of our community makes it all the more distressing.”
The town council will have 30 days to respond to the complaint after receiving a copy of it from the compliance board. The board, which is housed in the Maryland Attorney General’s Office and has no enforcement authority, will then issue an advisory opinion within about 30 days if it has no questions for the parties.
In addition to issuing opinions, the board recommends changes to the Maryland Open Meetings Act when needed and conducts educational programs for public bodies, the Maryland Municipal League, the Maryland Association of Counties and the Maryland Association of Boards of Education.