ACLU Files Open Meetings Complaint Against Pocomoke City
July 31, 2015
- Complaint on behalf of The Real News Network to Maryland Open Meetings Compliance Board
- ACLU letter to Pocomoke City officials
POCOMOKE, MD - The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Maryland is deeply troubled that as many Pocomoke City residents organized protests over the firing of the town's first African American police chief and called for the mayor's resignation, city officials blocked reporters from covering a public hearing where residents came to express their concerns. The ACLU filed a complaint with the Maryland Open Meetings Compliance Board on behalf of Stephen Janis, a reporter for The Real News Network, a Baltimore-based non-profit news organization, who was part of a reporting team blocked from entering the community meeting.
"Surely Pocomoke City officials can understand that blocking the media from public meetings on controversial issues violates both the First Amendment and Maryland open meetings law," said Deborah Jeon, Legal Director for the ACLU of Maryland. "Dodging press attention only prompts more questions when a community is already concerned about potentially racially biased government actions, raising the question, ‘What are they trying to hide?'"
Pocomoke City Mayor Bruce Morrison and the Town Council recently voted to fire the town's first African American Police Chief, Kelvin Sewell. No explanation was given for the town's action, and many in the community - both black and white - were upset. Concerns were raised that the Chief's termination might relate to complaints of race discrimination that had been made to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission by Sewell and two other African American Pocomoke police officers. Residents are also concerned that Sewell's reporting to the U.S. Department of Justice of irregularities in the town's use of federal grant funding might have prompted the firing. Rallying in support of Chief Sewell, community members organized protests, began circulating petitions, contacted the media, and came to City Hall by the hundreds for the July 13 Council meeting to demand answers from town officials.
Meetings of a municipal government's legislative body are required to be open to the public under the Maryland Open Meetings Act. And the First Amendment guarantees that the press and the public enjoy equal access to government information and proceedings. Nonetheless, numerous representatives of print and broadcast media were blocked from covering the July 13 meeting. The Real News team - Janis, who wrote a book with Sewell, and Taya Graham - arrived early, and should have been allowed in. Other members of the press who were already in the room were directed to leave, and those seeking entrance were barred, even as members of the public were entering.