The query to Kathleen W. Colbert, retirement administrator at Prince George's County Retirement Board in Maryland, couldn't have been more simple. Or maybe not. She was asked: When are the board's public meetings?
Inquiries early this year to Ms. Colbert about meeting dates met with no answer. Ultimately, Terry Williams, a reporter in Pensions & Investments' New York office, sent a letter to Ms. Colbert July 21 asking for meeting dates. The letter also asked for copies of the minutes of the board's 1998 meetings and a list of the board members and their titles. That was all, nothing onerous.
The response from Ms. Colbert, dated July 30, said the request "has been forwarded to the appropriate county agency for review and response." That was all she said.
Nothing more came from Ms. Colbert or the Largo, Md.-based board, which oversees about $1 billion in pension assets. Through July, August, September, Vineeta Anand, a reporter in P&I's Washington bureau, phoned Ms. Colbert countless times, never reaching her, never receiving even one returned call. Then, Oct. 6, Ms. Colbert finally picked up the phone and demanded a new letter repeating again the July request for meeting dates, minutes and a list of trustees.
That second letter was faxed to her and elicited on the same day a reply by fax. In it, Ms. Colbert noted the July request had been "forwarded to legal counsel for review."
A lawyer has to review whether to make public the meeting dates of public meetings?
Anyway, with the letter, Ms. Colbert enclosed a sheet listing 15 trustees of the board, including herself, even though she isn't a trustee, and the dates of the 1998 board meetings. There were four meetings. The problem is Ms. Colbert waited until Oct. 6 to respond to the July request to inform the reporters that the last two board meetings of the year already were passed. They were Aug. 11 and Sept. 16, she wrote, adding a terse parenthetical statement: "No other meetings scheduled to date for 1998."
On Oct. 30, Ms. Colbert wrote again on the request for 1998 meeting minutes. She sent six pages of minutes for the four meetings, noting "certain parts of the meeting minutes have been withheld from public inspections pursuant to the 'deliberative process' privilege." She didn't elaborate on the privilege. The minutes were almost all blacked out. Two pages were entirely blacked out except for the phrase, "Having no further business, the meeting was adjourned."
Do Ms. Colbert and the board recognize they live in America, land of freedom? They know one cannot properly exercise his or her democratic rights without appropriate information by which to judge the actions of public officials. Ms. Colbert and the trustees have a perverse notion of stewardship.
The public, though, should thank Ms. Colbert and the trustees for demanding requests for meeting dates in writing. Someday as historians, or historical comedians, research the board's archives, they will see the record of correspondence and minutes. These researchers can note the larger context of the colloquy on disclosing dates of meetings, unfolding amid a volatile stock market, from last summer's plunge to this fall's rebound. Amid wild markets and presumed duties, such as analyzing investment manager performance, Ms. Colbert and the board made it a priority to discuss in their meetings and letters requests for a meeting schedule.
But who needs to wait for history to reveal the deliberations of Ms. Colbert and board to hoist them by their own petard? Still, the reporters are back to where they started: Ms. Colbert didn't disclose the dates for the board's 1999 public meetings.