Commissioners move to block release of meeting minutes, vote
County says disclosure would have ‘chilling effect’ on closed meetings
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.