Com­mis­sion­ers move to block re­lease of meet­ing min­utes, vote

County says dis­clo­sure would have ‘chill­ing ef­fect’ on closed meet­ings

Maryland Independent - - Front Page - By PAUL LA­GASSE pla­gasse@somd­news.com

The Charles County At­tor­ney for the county gov­ern­ment on Mon­day for­mally re­quested that the Charles County Cir­cuit Court con­tinue to deny the re­lease of min­utes and recorded votes taken dur­ing a closed meet­ing that is be­lieved to have taken place in 2015. Dur­ing the meet­ing, the com­mis­sion­ers voted to re­im­burse the le­gal fees of a for­mer county commissioner and a for­mer county em­ployee.

The mo­tion fol­lows the July 27 rul­ing by Judge James P. Salmon, a re­tired Mary­land Court of Spe­cial Ap­peals judge, or­der­ing the re­lease of the doc­u­ments.

The re­quest by the county at­tor­ney does not ap­pear to ap­ply to the con­tracts that the com­mis­sion­ers en­tered into to pay the le­gal fees, or the le­gal bills that had been sub­mit­ted to the com­mis­sion­ers.

In March, the Mary­land In­de­pen­dent re­ported that ac­cord­ing to con­fi­den­tial doc­u­ments ob­tained by the pa­per, the

com­mis­sion­ers is­sued checks to for­mer com­mis­sion­ers’ pres­i­dent Candice Quinn Kelly and for­mer county ad­min­is­tra­tor Re­becca Brid­gett for le­gal fees in De­cem­ber 2015 and Fe­bru­ary 2016, re­spec­tively. The re­im­burse­ments had been re­quested fol­low­ing a crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Kelly’s at­tempts to ob­tain tax in­for­ma­tion about for­mer com­mis­sion­ers’ vice pres­i­dent Reuben B. Collins II in De­cem­ber 2011. A grand jury found no wrong­do­ing in the mat­ter.

Paula Martino, a for­mer Charles County Gov­ern­ment em­ployee and long­time county res­i­dent who moved away sev­eral years ago, and Colin Byrd of Green­belt each filed sep­a­rate and un­re­lated re­quests in April for records re­lated to the pay­ments un­der the Mary­land Pub­lic In­for­ma­tion Act.

In fil­ing suit against Martino and Byrd to pre­vent the re­lease of the records, deputy county at­tor­ney Eliz­a­beth Theobalds ar­gued that the min­utes and the recorded vote taken in the closed ses­sion were legally ex­empt from re­lease. The re­im­burse­ment re­quests sub­mit­ted to the com­mis­sion­ers and any con­trac­tual agree­ments to pay the le­gal fees, while not

legally ex­empted, were none­the­less pro­tected by a “pub­lic pol­icy fac­tor.”

Martino’s at­tor­ney, Gre­gory M. Kline, said that by fil­ing an in­stant ac­tion to tem­po­rar­ily deny in­spec­tion of the records, the county had in ef­fect waived its abil­ity to rely on the MPIA’s ex­emp­tions. In his rul­ing, Judge Salmon agreed with Kline.

Kline based his ar­gu­ment on the rul­ing in a land­mark pub­lic ac­cess case from 1986, City of Bal­ti­more v. Burke. On Mon­day, Theobalds ar­gued that the Burke de­ci­sion did not ap­ply to records cov­ered by le­gal ex­emp­tions such as those spelled out in the MPIA.

“Re­quir­ing the dis­clo­sure of the records from a prop­erly con­ducted closed ses­sion will have a chill­ing ef­fect on the pro­tec­tions specif­i­cally granted by law,” Theobalds wrote in Mon­day’s mo­tion.

The MPIA re­quires the un­seal­ing of min­utes and record­ings of closed meet­ings when­ever the par­tic­i­pants de­cide to in­vest pub­lic funds or mar­ket pub­lic se­cu­ri­ties, or when the ma­jor­ity of the par­tic­i­pants vote to un­seal them. In this case, Theobalds noted, none of those con­di­tions ex­isted.

When reached for com­ment, Martino said she has re­viewed the mo­tion and that Kline would be pre­par­ing a re­sponse.

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