As discussed in a short piece last week, on February 20th the Talbot County Council sent a letter to the legislature in Annapolis expressing the County’s position on certain bills. This was noteworthy not because of the issue and the County’s position, but because the County had taken that action in the dark, in complete disregard of procedure, with no public discussion or public vote. Citizens would have known nothing about it except that the “Talbot letter” was referred to in open meeting. But my charge remains only an accusation without proof.
Here is the update to the story.
On, February 25 when the matter first came to light, I sent a letter to Mr. Pack (copied to all other Council Members, the County Attorney and the County Manager), saying that “unless you and the County Attorney can confirm that the matter was properly handled in all material respects, we respectfully request” that the advisory letters be withdrawn. I expressed the reasons we suspected the matter had been mishandled—“please correct us if we are wrong”—and bulleted 10 question about how the letter came to be issued, followed by “If we are completely off base in our concerns about process, advise us of course.”
No reply. Nada. From anyone. Dawn’s light has not yet broken.
All we are trying to do here is get answers to a few simple questions about how the matter was handled, answers that are known at this very moment by Mr. Pack, Mr. Hollis, Mr. Kupersmith, and all the other participants.
On March 5th, I emailed the County Attorney requesting a factual reply, noting that “not being directed to the corporate entity, perhaps [the questions in my letter] were not taken seriously.” He replied, “as far as your inquiry to Mr. Pack is concerned, I obviously cannot speak for him. I will review your letter but am not promising a response.” The Public Information Act (PIA) regs were also cited—more on that below.
In frustration, I wrote Mr. Kupersmith asking that he just forget the original letter addressed to Mr. Pack, and instead “ let me simply ask you directly as the County Attorney these questions” (5) about how the letters to the legislature were authorized. I asked for no documents. Here is the meat of his answer:
“As you’re aware, the Office of Law provides legal advice to the Council, boards/commissions, and departments. In this instance, you have directed a request to one of this Office’s clients (Mr. Pack/County Council) [sic] and we may provide legal advice to the client in connection with the request. Therefore, I am not in a position, at least at the moment, to offer any comments on this beyond helping direct you to relevant County resources, such as the PIA policy I provided earlier. I realize this may not be satisfactory to you, but you must recognize that when you write a letter alleging that the Council did not act appropriately and making demands, you have put the matter in an adversarial posture that does not lend itself to casual responses.”
So, it appears the public will not—or at least I will not– be receiving any explanation. Accordingly, this morning I sent to the County a broadly drawn PIA request to obtain all of the documents related to this affair. From those we can surely deduce what unfolded, and obtain the simple answers to the simple question we started with: were the February 20th letters properly issued, or were they sent under the cover of darkness.
(I realize one of the other Council Members might be willing to provide the answer in full. But they all have known from the beginning what I am looking for. My sense is that if Mr. Pack, as the Council President, does not want to talk about it, then that is his message to others too. To lean hard on anyone else to step up and tell the story is perhaps unfair, as that might mean creating a bad relationship with Mr. Pack near the beginning of a long 4 years.)
But back to the PIA request. In the lead article of Sunday’s Edition, the Star Democrat reported on the unreasonably high cost per page for getting simple police reports in Maryland. But in cases like this, the “cost per page” for a copy of a document is almost beside the point. (To boot, we only want to inspect documents, and may want only a few copied.) Mr. Kupersmith described the issue thus:
The PIA policy also sets out the fees, which are not limited to copies. See section 1.10. They cover the time it takes staff to collect and review the records, including legal review for any applicable privilege / PIA exemption.
Indeed, Section 1.10(B)(3) of the County’s PIA Request Regulations say (emphasis added) that, apart from copying and such, “the fee to search, compile, review, prepare and otherwise respond to a request…is the cost calculated by multiplying the actual time spent by each individual employee involved in the response, including attorney review time, by his or her hourly salary, including benefits…” although there is no charge for the first two hours of work. Arguably this is all fair and reasonable. But it can also seem pretty intimidating, unlimited, and unknowable, and many citizens might not be a position to step up.
So in summary, this is how it works: since the Council President, Mr. Pack, (the addressee of a letter) does not wish to respond to questions because the letter sounds (let’s say is) adversarial, then the County Attorney also cannot provide answers—because the addressee is his client. But a citizen IS legally entitled to dig out the answers himself via a PIA request, so long as he or she agrees to pay the costs, whatever they turn out to be.
And I could be completely wrong. Maybe the County handled this properly but has refused to explain it just because someone is in a snit about the audacious allegation that they erred. If so, I am prepared (as always) to eat crow. In just measure, I find it a healthy component of the human diet.
So that is the status of things folks, here in Talbot County during Sunshine Week 2019. Update to follow.
(By the way, the letters to the legislature approved in public by the Council last night are a completely different than the matter above. It is confusing, but poor government can unfold both in the dark and right out in broad daylight.)