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Md. attorney: Meeting between county officials and corrections director violated transparency law

Questions arise about why meeting about squalid conditions for youth inmates was not public


Photo/Kenneth K. Lam of Baltimore Sun via TNS

By Cassidy Jensen, Lia Russell
Baltimore Sun

BALTIMORE — A portion of a meeting between four Baltimore County councilmembers and the county’s corrections director about conditions for youth at the county jail was in violation of the Maryland Open Meetings Act, County Attorney James Benjamin said Thursday.

During a virtual meeting on March 17, Director of Corrections Walt Pesterfield told Chairman Julian Jones Jr. of Woodstock and councilmembers Pat Young of Catonsville, Izzy Patoka of Pikesville, and Mike Ertel of Towson, all Democrats, that some allegations of squalid conditions for youth inmates at the Baltimore County Detention Center were false or only partially true, according to the councilmembers and Pesterfield.

The director of the Maryland Public Defender’s juvenile protection division said in a letter earlier this month that youth inmates in the Towson jail’s intake unit were being held for up to 23 hours a day in cells that were prone to flooding and infested with rodents. The children also struggled to access mental health and medical care, and received inadequate education, according to the letter.

Pesterfield, who joined the department in January, told the Baltimore County legislative delegation in a public meeting on March 17 that children were not held in solitary confinement and received schooling and mental health treatment at the jail, but did not offer further details other than that he had identified “some areas for improvement.”

During a private briefing later that day with county councilmembers, Pesterfield said the allegation that toilets were flooding cells with sewage could be the result of inmates shoving objects in them, Patoka and Ertel said.

Pesterfield also said there were mice in the jail, which is common for aging facilities, according to Patoka.

“Some of the issue with that whole letter, pieces of that was from a 2018 interview,” Ertel said. “These are things that supposedly happened years ago. [Pesterfield] went through each allegation and from what we can tell, most of it is either not true or half-true.”

The jail director also told the four Democrats that the allegation that one youth inmate hadn’t been outside in two years during their confinement was untrue, because no children had been there for more than a year, Ertel said.

Pesterfield confirmed in an interview Thursday that he discussed with councilmembers detainees flooding their cells and said no youth had been in the facility longer than a year during his tenure. “It was factual information,” he said of the meeting, adding that he tried to give councilmembers context. Pesterfield said in a March 16 letter to the public defender that he anticipated completing a full investigation within 30 days.

A pest control company treats the facility regularly, Pesterfield said, adding he had never seen rodents in the jail. County spokesperson Erica Palmisano said no juvenile detainees have submitted any work orders or complaints for rodents.

Children under 18 charged with serious crimes as adults and who are deemed a threat to other youth are sent to the Towson jail, but a judge can also order them to be held in a juvenile facility before trial. The Towson jail held six minors on Thursday, Pesterfield said.

In a March 16 letter to Pesterfield, the County Council requested that he brief them, calling the allegations “serious and deserving of our urgent attention.” They also asked to tour the jail.

Jones, Young, Ertel, and Patoka met with Pesterfield the next afternoon on a virtual call, along with executive and legislative staff, where the correctional director addressed each point in the letter and gave explanations for each allegation.

Attendees gave conflicting explanations for why the meeting wasn’t public and why no minutes or recording was taken.

Bostwick, Ertel, Jones, and Patoka said members dropped on and off the call and were unable to say if all four Democratic councilmembers were simultaneously present in the virtual meeting.

Young, a former state delegate, said there was a quorum but the call was above board because the council does not oversee the jail. “This wasn’t council business,” he said.

Thomas Bostwick, the council’s attorney, said there was no quorum at the meeting and referred further questions to the county Office of Government Affairs, which coordinated the council discussion. The office referred comment to Palmisano, who said that agency organized the call at Jones’ request.

Benjamin, the head of Baltimore County’s Office of Law, confirmed that the council violated the Open Meetings Act, but said the government affairs office is not subject to the law.

Despite the meeting’s informal nature, “a quorum was reached,” he wrote in an email to The Sun.

“That being said, any violation of the Open Meetings Act was inadvertent and unintentional. The Council will be mindful of this moving forward.”

The Open Meetings Compliance Board can levy a civil penalty and impose a $250 fine for the first violation, and $1,000 for every violation thereafter within three years.

David Williams, president of the Taxpayers Protection Alliance, a government accountability nonprofit, cited the meeting as another recent example of Baltimore-area politicians skirting transparency laws.

“These are public entities that should be open and accessible to everyone,” he said. “They should be looking for reasons to open [meetings] up, not closing them. They shouldn’t be parsing statements to justify why a meeting is closed.”

Patoka said he viewed the scheduling of the briefing as a quick response from the corrections department to the council’s urgent questions.

“We had put forward questions, Director Pesterfield was interested in responding to those, and to me, that was the key point. I was interested in learning more given the gravity of what was in the report,” he said.

The purpose of the meeting was not to debunk the “concerning” allegations, but explain them and provide context, Young said. He said the council will hold a budget hearing in late April or early May with the corrections department to discuss what resources it will allocate for hosting youth inmates.

The meeting was set up by another agency to discuss a sensitive subject, and not meant to evade any transparency law, Ertel said.

“I don’t think anyone was trying to hide anything,” he said.

The three Republican councilmembers who did not attend the March 17 meeting — Wade Kach of Cockeysville, David Marks of Perry Hall, and Todd Crandell of Dundalk — met with Pesterfield a week later.

The briefings were split to avoid forming a quorum because it was a “private meeting,” Crandell said. All three Republicans said in interviews that they were satisfied concerns about the jail were being addressed.

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