As reported earlier, on February 20 the Talbot County Council violated Section 212(f) of the County Charter–“No business may be transacted…except in public session”–when President Corey Pack sent four letters to the legislature expressing the Council’s opposition to certain bills. Mr. Pack, the Council, and the County Attorney have been asked to acknowledge that the handling this matter was flat out wrong—that proper process was ignored. They refuse to do so. Meanwhile the import of the four letters has become moot.
So why am I continuing to press this as a big deal? Because it’s important that the Talbot County Council know that citizens are paying attention, and that folks in Talbot do expect Council Members and the staff to operate by the rules all the time, not just when its convenient.
Neither Mr. Pack nor the County Attorney would reply to any questions posed in a February 25th letter on this matter, even though the answers were right at hand. (For example, who introduced the proposal, and what were the votes of the five Council Members.) Instead, I was told my only option was to get the answers on my own by submitting a formal, time consuming, and expensive request under the Maryland Public Information Act (“PIA”).
Last week, as a result of the formal PIA process—and at a charge of $616.43–the County did provide access to certain documents, only a few of which were of any interest.
What the County refused to release, however, was the handful of documents that obviously matter: nine emails plus eight texts messages, all sent in the 24 hours leading up to Mr. Pack’s issuing the letters in question.
(The County Attorney claims these items can be withheld legally for two reasons, neither of which holds up as I will discuss in Part 2 of this column.)
These seventeen texts and emails were all between and among Council Members, and in some cases the County Attorney and County Manager. Somewhere in there a vote was taken, as Mr. Pack, at 10:19 PM on February 19th, wrote (in a document that was disclosed) “a majority of the Council is in favor of sending a letter in opposition….”
The texts and emails of February 18th and 19th no doubt show how and when and where (and perhaps why) the Council acted in disregard of the Charter—transacting the public’s business in private, outside of any “public session.” From the few documents obtained via the PIA, we do know that the vote was 3-2, and that Mr. Lesher opposed. (He also wrote to an inquiring citizen: “the council majority has not granted me the authority to break the confidence of any discussion of this…”)
So who were the three Council Members in favor of this “in the dark” action? Many assume it was the trio that ran together in the last election as the “Common Sense Talbot” ticket—Messrs.’. Pack, Callahan and Divilio. Yet that is not completely clear, as Ms. Price seemed to advocate forcefully for other similar letters that followed. Also, were the two Council Members who voted against issuing the letters opposed to the content, or did they recognize and reject the illegal procedure being employed to keep the public in the dark? Is this not the very reason the Talbot County Charter provides that “No business may be transacted…except in public session”?
The way the Council President, the County Attorney, and the Council have reacted to this—a stonewalling exercise, rather than simply acknowledging error—opens a number of interesting facets to this story. Again, stay tuned.
Dan Watson is the former chair of Bipartisan Coalition For New Council Leadership and has lived in Talbot County for the last twenty-five years.