St. Michaels residents continue to press for additional information about the town commission’s decision to dismiss the town manager, but the confidentiality of personnel issues makes it unlikely questions will be answered.
The St. Michaels commissioners went into closed session on June 24 to discuss personnel matters, which is one of more than a dozen exceptions to the state’s Open Meetings Act.
An attorney for Jean Weisman, a 37-year town employee who had been town manager for 10 years, later issued a statement saying the commissioners voted 4-1 at the June 24 meeting to dismiss Weisman; the town subsequently issued its own statement.
State law allows closed sessions to discuss personnel issues, including:
- “(i) the appointment, employment, assignment, promotion, discipline, demotion, compensation, removal, resignation, or performance evaluation of an appointee, employee, or official over whom it has jurisdiction; or
- “(ii) any other personnel matter that affects one or more specific individuals.”
The Open Meetings Act provides several conditions that must be met in order to close a session.
According to the Open Meetings Act Manual, prepared by the state attorney general’s office, those conditions are:
1) Any meeting must begin in an open session, for which proper notice has been given. The person designated by the public body to take the required Open Meetings Act training must be present or the public body must complete a compliance checklist available on the attorney general’s website.
2) In the open session, the presiding officer must complete a closing statement, “a written statement of the reason for closing the meeting,” that includes the “topics to be discussed” in addition to the statutory exception for closing the meeting. (The manual provides sample closing statement forms.)
This requirement can get a little tricky when it comes to the topics to be discussed. The state’s open meetings compliance board, which is advisory only, has repeatedly said the topic should not simply repeat the “boilerplate” of the statutory exception — if the session is closed for a business relocation, for example, the topic should not be listed as “business relocation.”
According to the Open Meetings Act Manual: “In most cases, a description of the topic alone also does not convey why the public body needs to exclude the public. Occasionally, though, the Compliance Board has found that a description of the topic to be discussed adequately conveyed the public body’s reason for closing a meeting, as when the public body has described the topic as discipline matters respecting individual employees. See, e.g., 4 OMCB Opinions 188, 196 (2005).”
In a sample closing statement provided in the manual, in which the public body voted to go into closed session for personnel matters, the topic listed was “applicants for parks & rec head” and the reason provided for holding that discussion in a closed session was “Public discussion of applicants’ names and job info could discourage people from applying for Town jobs.”
3) There must be a recorded vote — a vote for which each member’s vote is specified — on a motion to close the meeting to the public. (Here, the manual also notes that a member of the public may object to the closing of a meeting.)
4) During the closed session, the discussion must be limited to the topics and scope listed on the closing statement.
5) After the closed session, “the public body must disclose, in the minutes of the next open session, information that discloses what topics were actually discussed, who attended the closed session, and what actions the public body took.”
St. Michaels has provided the following closing statement for the June 24 meeting:Closed Session of June 24 2021
State law and the town’s charter also make it clear that the town commissioners may dismiss a town clerk/manager at any time, for almost any reason or for no reason.
Maryland is an at-will employment state, meaning “in the absence of an express contract, agreement or policy to the contrary, an employee may be hired or fired for almost any reason — whether fair or not — or for no reason at all,” according to the state labor department’s website.
The town charter, meanwhile, provides that the town clerk/manager “shall serve at the pleasure of the Commission….”