Sykesville Town Council, mayor found in violation of Open Meetings Act, state says; Warfield developer raises concern

Originally published by Sherry Greenfield
Carroll County Times – Nov 20, 2022 


The Sykesville Town Council and Mayor Stacy Link were found to have violated the Open Meetings Act — a statute that requires state and local public bodies to hold their meetings in public, to give the public adequate notice of those meetings and to allow the public to inspect meeting minutes.

The state Open Meetings Compliance Board on Oct. 31 issued a seven-page opinion that states the council, which consists of the mayor and six other members, violated the act when a quorum of the council attended Sykesville Planning Commission meetings on Feb. 7 and March 21.

At both meetings, the state determined that the Sykesville Town Council received information about a matter of public business that would be coming before the planning commission for a vote.

“Under the facts here, the receipt of information as part of a step in the process for a matter that was certain to come before the council was the consideration of public business and thus constituted ‘meetings’ of the council on February 7 and March 21,” the written opinion states. “The meeting notices, however, described only meetings of the Planning Commission

“We further find that texting among members of the Council at the March 21 meeting violated the Act’s requirements … that public bodies generally meet in open session and permit any member of the general public to attend,” according to the ruling.

The opinion also states that the compliance board did not have enough information to determine whether members of the planning commission “improperly engaged in side conversations that violated the Act by depriving the public (and other members of the commission) the opportunity to fully observe the commission’s deliberations.”

Members of the Sykesville Town Council did not return requests for comment.

“I cannot comment on the OMA Compliance Board decision because the matter is pending appeal,” Link said in an email.

The complaint dates to December 2021, when Warfield Companies, the developers of Warfield at Historic Sykesville, a mixed-use housing and commercial development on Route 32, filed a zoning text amendment with the town to construct less commercial space and instead build affordable housing, Timothy Maloney, attorney for Warfield said in an interview.

The request was referred to the planning commission, which held two meetings, one on Feb. 7 and another on March 21.

“The planning commission rejected the plan,” Maloney said.

On July 22, lawyers for Warfield Companies and the Maryland Building Industry Association filed a complaint with the Open Meetings Compliance Board. Warfield contends that there were two separate conversations that occurred simultaneously at each of the meetings, “the public dialogue,” and a “simultaneous private conversation” among members of the planning commission and members of the mayor and Town Council.

“Specifically, the complainants (Warfield Companies) allege that (one) a quorum of the Council attended the Planning Commission meetings, and while sitting in the public gallery, improperly discussed Council business, and (two), members of the Council improperly communicated with members of the Planning Commission ‘off the record’ during the Planning Commission meetings,” the compliance board states in its official opinion.

On Feb. 7, the planning commission met to consider the proposed zoning amendment. The mayor and three other council members attended the meeting. It is unclear who the three other council members were.

“The Mayor and one of the council members sat next to each other and throughout the meeting, spoke to one another,” the compliance board states. “The Complainants (Warfield Companies) allege that the Mayor, ‘certain council member,’ and certain Planning Commission members ‘were actively referring to cellphones.’ According to the Complainants, their ‘expressive body language and facial expressions suggested texting between the Council members and Planning Commission members.’”

On March 21, the planning commission met again to consider the same proposed amendment.

Five council members attended the meeting. It is unclear who the five council members were; they not mentioned by name in the official opinion from the state. There are six members on the council.

“Text messages from the time of the meeting appear to show conversations between the Mayor and two other Council members who were sitting in the public gallery,” the compliance board states. “More specifically, one text chain appears to show a conversation between the Mayor and a Council member about the possibility of having a collaborative workshop with the developer proposing the zoning amendment.”

The text messages were obtained by Warfield Companies through a Public Information Act request and turned over to the state board.

“A separate text chain appears to show a conversation between the Mayor and a different Council member expressing opinions about the quality of the proposed development,” the compliance board states.

The town council did respond in the complaint.

“The council concedes that a quorum of the council was present during the Planning Commission meetings but argues that the quorum’s presence did not convert the commission meetings into meetings of the council,” the compliance board states. “Under the act means to convene a quorum of a public body to consider or transact public business. The council argues that a quorum of the council did not consider or transact public business at the Planning Commission meetings.”

Maloney said Warfield officials witnessed the exchanges.

“We went to the planning commission meeting to make sure they knew our people were there,” he said. “They have really demonstrated hostility to the Warfield project. We’re frustrated. The mayor and the council are openly hostile to affordable housing in the project. They have made that clear.”

Maloney said Warfield is “finishing up” the construction of 145 townhomes. The cost of those homes is in the mid-$500,000 range.

“The zoning proposed is for 170 to 180 rental units in one of the historic buildings [on the property],” he said. “There will be new construction, with different price points. We’re trying to meet multiple levels of need to serve the community. They would be priced for people in the workforce, such as teachers, firefighters, police and retirees.”

There are 12 historic buildings on the site. Three of the historic buildings have been restored and are occupied by Nexion Health, Zeteo Tech and Alderson Loop, Warfield states, on its website. The remaining nine buildings will be rehabilitated and repurposed in a variety of ways as future users are identified. The buildings or portions of them will be offered for lease or purchase depending on the needs of individual users.

“The developer is free to put affordable housing, if they choose, in any of the historic buildings up to the number of residential units left within the residential density permitted by the zoning,” Link stated in an email.

Link said the mayor and council, as elected representatives, have listened to town residents and what they want.

“The citizens of Sykesville made it very clear at a [May 3] public hearing, citing multiple real-world negative implications to their families’ quality of life, safety and well-being, that additional residential development of any type, be it low-income, workforce, or market rate, particularly at the high-density levels being proposed by the Warfield developers, is not in their best interest.

“Those same citizens have elected me and six other council members to collectively represent their best interests,” Link stated. “They have spoken, and we heard them and unanimously denied the developer’s request to change zoning. The developer’s ‘not in my backyard’ narrative they continue to write on behalf of our citizens is not only offensive, but simply false. The only story here is one of a developer trying to bully a small town and its Mayor and Town Council.”

The mayor and town council have 30 days to respond to the complaint from the Open Meetings Compliance Board, the Maryland Attorney General’s website states. The response should address the issues in the complaint and any other issues raised by the board.

If the council and mayor deny to the Compliance Board that the Open Meetings Act was violated, they must explain why they did not violate the act. If they acknowledge that the act was violated, they must explain how they will change their procedures to comply with the act and provide any documentation detailing the change in practice.

If they are found in violation of the act, they are required at the next open meeting of the mayor and council to announce the violation and orally summarize the opinion. In addition, a majority of the council must sign a copy of the opinion and return it to the compliance board.

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