The Star Democrat

Two hundred forty-eight dollars and seventy-seven cents. That was the final price just to see what we had the legal right to see all along.

Truth should be free to the public, but at least three on this Council think otherwise.

You recall the ten emails and eight texts that the County Council back in February insisted must be kept locked away? Talbot’s version of the Pentagon Papers. They related to decisions the State’s Open Meetings Compliance Board (“OMCB”) determined were made illegally, behind closed doors. It took a Public Information Act request to smoke out what happened. Even then, the Council refused to release their texts and emails, claiming that to do so would “harm the public interest.” In other words, they were keeping those texts and emails secret from us for our own good.

But once the State determined the Council’s secret decision-making violated State law and should have transpired in public, it followed that those texts and emails should have been public too. Yet the Council majority still refused to release them…that is, until another citizen filed a separate PIA for the same documents.

Here is what Council Members then said as they announced a change of heart:

  • Mr. Lesher (moving for their release): “The public was entitled to, but deprived of the opportunity to, observe our actions.”
  • Ms. Price: “I second that motion. …I thought from the very beginning that we should be transparent and should release those emails related to the PIA request. There was nothing in them that … the public shouldn’t see.”
  • Mr. Divilio: “I am happy to release the single email I sent to Mr. Pack which offered my opinion on the two issues.”
  • Mr. Callahan: “I don’t think we tried to keep anything away from the public; I thought we were doing our job as elected officials for the best interest of the community. That’s what I thought we were doing… I was not really concerned about hiding anything. I just think there are normal things we’re doing here, and it’s not the first and it’s not going to be the last...I’m in favor of releasing it because there’s nothing there…”
  • President Pack: “I was going to go along with the majority, and I will do likewise tonight in my abstention of casting a vote.”

So by a 4-0 vote the secret “Pentagon Papers” were released 6 months after the initial request, the Council proudly (and accurately) confirming there had never been anything the public shouldn’t see. In other words, the Council was not truly trying to “protect the public interest.” Just kidding!

So why the big fuss? I think it was simply about power… an embarrassingly petty demonstration (mostly to yours truly) that the Council majority could damn well do as it wished, PIA or not. That challenge as to how the Council made a couple of decisions behind closed doors was not well received. The Council probably did not expect to face an Open Meetings Act complaint, and certainly did not expect to lose it. But once that happened, the release of the “withheld materials” was inevitable and revealed the hollowness of the “protect the public interest” claim.

So what about the $248.77? State law says the County may recover its reasonable costs for “search and preparation” of materials under a PIA request if that work goes beyond 2 hours, which are free. Two points:

First, maybe “searching” for those emails and texts could have taken two hours, but the County’s charges for the rest of the fifteen hours must have been for “preparation;” that is, the County Attorneys’ time to research and prepare bogus arguments on privilege as directed by 3 (or more) members of the Council.

Second, those charges are not mandatory and can be waived, especially in a case of “public interest.” Indeed, Maryland’s PIA manual states “A waiver may be appropriate, for example, when a requester seeks information for a public purpose, rather than a narrow personal or commercial interest, because a public purpose justifies the expenditure of public funds to comply with the request.”

Is our case not the poster child for this “public purpose” waiver?

The Council majority’s decision, after several requests for reconsideration (one as late as this week) seems final. They have waived half the charge, with this somewhat insulting, backhanded comment: “This reduction in fees should not be perceived as a reflection of the merits of your inquiry, nor whether the fees were properly issued…Rather this decision is reflective of an effort to avoid dissuading citizens from inquiring into actions of their local government due to cost.”

This whole PIA kerfuffle is just petty, but it does make one wonder. Will these well intentioned, hardworking representatives, who put in a ton of time tending to County matters, act in a manner more mature when matters of real importance arise? We all hope so, I’m sure.

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