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County's Commission on Disabilities hasn't met in a year; reasons cited for that gap

Frederick News-Post - 2/10/2019

Feb. 10--Feb. 12, 2018.

That's the last time the Frederick County Commission on Disabilities -- which was supposed to convene nine times since then -- officially met, according to a list of meeting agendas and minutes posted on the county website.

This has been a concern for multiple local officials, and an Urbana resident who has attended most County Council meetings since December and has repeatedly told council members that the county is neglecting its disabled population.

Officials, including those currently on the commission, cited reasons why the commission hasn't met -- it has been difficult to recruit people, there has been confusion on what constitutes a quorum, or a lack of one, and bad weather has led to some cancellations.

On top of those reasons, the commission has been restructured in an effort to solve some of those problems. It used to operate under the county's Human Resources Division, but has since moved under the Citizens Services Division.

The county's Commission on Disabilities -- one of more than 30 boards and commissions countywide -- was established in 1994, and reports to the county executive on issues related to the Americans with Disabilities Act and related legislation.

Its mission, according to its page on the county website, is to raise the level of "disability awareness" countywide, identify barriers in programs and facilities to the local disabled population and help that population find resources, among other goals.

The commission's meetings are scheduled the second Monday of each month, except in August and December.

The restructuring of the commission began in December and officials hope that will make it more visible moving forward.

Monica Grant, director of Frederick County's Citizens Services Division, and Miles Ward, director of the Human Relations Commission within that division, are heading up the transition, and are tasked with recruiting new members. Currently, the commission, which is supposed to have nine members, has only five.

Ward said that when he has contacted people, he's let them know the commission hasn't met in several months, and that he'd like to see a collaborative approach moving forward.

"I'd like to get a full commission together, people who have a similar desire to help people with disabilities," Ward said. "And a group together that will work in harmony. That's so important."

Both Grant and Ward said while they're concerned about the commission's recent inactivity, they're confident it will meet regularly in the next few months. Grant added she has years of experience as a physical therapist for children with disabilities, which will help her oversee the commission.

She said that the Citizens Services Division should have no issue heading another commission.

"I think they just didn't have the same experience in managing boards and commissions we had," Grant said about the commission's former home under the county's Human Resources Division. "When you're managing volunteer time, you have to be very respectful of how that happens, and you have to intervene strategically."

A concern among officials

Nadine Autry, current chair of the Commission on Disabilities, is no stranger to working with the population the panel serves.

Autry works as director of independent living services at The Freedom Center, an organization that serves the population in Carroll and Frederick counties.

She said she's concerned that the commission hasn't met for several months, but that a quorum is required in order for its meetings to be official.

"It concerns me because one, I am a person with disabilities, and two, I work for an agency that works with disabilities," said Autry, who has suffered from chronic back pain and thyroid problems. "It concerns me the commission is not meeting. However, you have to have the people in order to meet."

County Executive Jan Gardner (D) said in an interview earlier this month she wasn't aware the commission on disabilities hadn't met for months, adding that she oversees a considerable number of boards and commissions.

"We have so many boards and commissions, and I really can't go back and piece together all that history. All I can do is make sure we move forward in the future," Gardner said.

She said the commission might want to meet anyway, even if a quorum can't be established.

"A lot of times, there aren't decisions that are made that need a vote," Gardner said. "It's more about information and consensus building and what to do next."

Autry and other officials have said one reason the commission hasn't met is because previous commissioners resigned due to health or personal issues.

Minutes show Penny Jurchak, the former vice chair of the commission, was serving in that role in November 2017. Now, however, county records indicate she is no longer part of the commission.

Meeting minutes from October 2017 show that Amy Crehan and Barbara Trader were appointed as new members to the commission. Jurchak declined to comment last month about her time on the commission. Crehan also declined to comment, deferring further questions to Miles Ward.

According to its website, the commission's current members are Autry, Crehan, Trader, Marsha Flowers and Karen Duffy.

Duffy said in an interview Friday she was appointed to the commission in late November or early December. She agreed with Gardner that the commission should probably meet in future months, even if there isn't a quorum.

Duffy serves as chief development officer at EveryMind, a mental wellness services center in Rockville. She said it's important to consider the needs of people who have disabilities associated with mental health, along with physical disabilities.

"There's just so much, that I want to make sure we're inclusive and covering all constituents with disabilities," Duffy said.

Concerning remaining vacancies, Autry said she would like more diversity on the commission, especially through younger people being appointed. Increased visibility is also a priority, she added.

"A lot of people don't know about the Commission on Disabilities," she said. "I want to make sure we're out there, and that we're there to help. ... That's my vision for the commission."

Quantifying a quorum

At several County Council meetings, Urbana resident John Gretz has offered public comment, noting his concerns over the commission not meeting.

The commission met in early 2018, but then, later on, it was determined that a quorum wasn't established. Minutes were later deleted from the county website, Gretz said.

A report of that meeting on Feb. 12, 2018, was posted on the county website in the last few weeks, but it's unclear whether that meeting constituted a quorum, as only three members of the commission met.

According to that report, commission members also "gave various reports on transportation, safety, new programs, and events that are happening in the county in regards to the disabled community."

They then went into closed session to discuss interested candidates for the vacant positions.

The last time the commission met before then was Nov. 13, 2017. Minutes from that meeting indicate the commissioners, among other actions, were considering completing an application for the U.S. Department of Transportation's Accessible Transport Technology Research Initiative grant, worth a total of $6.1 million.

Minutes also indicate that members discussed the group's participation in a local health fair, and that they interviewed more candidates for commission vacancies in closed session.

While the commission has struggled to obtain members, it's unclear if they would have been able to establish a quorum in past meetings, or what even constitutes a quorum for the commission. According to the commission's bylaws, last updated in September 2017, "a quorum of the [Commission on Disabilities] at regular meetings shall consist of 50 percent of the current members, plus one member."

Multiple officials said they're unsure if that only applies for a full commission of nine members, or the number of people currently sitting on the commission. County Councilman Steve McKay (R), the county's liaison to the commission, said in an interview last month he's waiting to hear from the county attorney's office about what constitutes a quorum.

"The fact the commission hasn't met in a long time concerns me greatly," he said. McKay added that he's unsure, because the commission is stipulated to have nine members, whether having five members establishes a quorum, or, if because the commission currently has only five members, a smaller group would constitute a quorum.

"What I don't know ... is whether there's some higher state law that's driving this opinion," McKay added.

In an interview late last month, County Attorney John Mathias said his office didn't yet have an official legal opinion on what constitutes a quorum. He said he and his colleagues were still reviewing not only what constitutes a quorum, but also whether the Commission on Disabilities has the legal power to draft and adopt its own bylaws.

"There's state law and there's case law, and we have to sort through that, particularly since Mr. Gretz has mentioned it at several meetings," Mathias said when asked what the county attorney's office was reviewing. "Until we check all of those sources out, we don't know what the exact quorum is."

According to the commission's bylaws, no votes may be taken by the commission "except in the presence of a quorum."

Mathias said the role of each commission depends on what level of government requires that it be established.

"We have commissions that sometimes are required by state law, sometimes by federal law ... and sometimes, they are adopted just because they are deemed to serve a need," he said.

What's next?

Since Gretz started voicing his concerns to the new County Council in December, the Commission on Disabilities canceled another meeting.

Before that, however, the commission was also scheduled to meet Nov. 16, 2018, but heavy snow prevented that from happening, Autry said. Then, after the commission was restructured under the county's Citizens Services Division, the commission canceled its Jan. 14, 2019, meeting because of a lack of a quorum, she added.

Autry, Ward and Grant all said they're hopeful the commission will be more active in the coming months.

"We're intending to have a robust commission that will meet on a regular basis," Grant said.

A meeting has been scheduled for Feb. 11 at 6 p.m. at Winchester Hall. McKay asked Mathias at a County Council meeting Feb. 5 for a definition of a quorum, since the commission's bylaws appear to clearly define what that is. Mathias said he and his colleagues were still determining the definition.

Gardner said she still believes the commission fills a need in the county, and she wants to see diverse representation, not only in terms of age of each member, but also geographically. That means reaching out to rural areas of the county, outside of the city of Frederick, she said.

"We want to make sure we meet the needs of people with disabilities, and that we are aware of what they need, so whether it's accessibility or consideration from a whole host of things," Gardner said about her vision for the commission. "If it's good for people with disabilities, it tends to be good for everybody."

Follow Steve Bohnel on Twitter: @Steve_Bohnel.


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