Op-Ed: Secrecy Regarding Planning Commission Candidates by Dan Watson

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Important power is vested in the County Planning Commission that directly–and permanently—shapes our community. Virtually all land use issues, large and small, go before that Commission; it is the arbiter of what complies with our Comprehensive Plan and what does not. The future character of Talbot County is entrusted into the hands of 5 individuals.

We are a representative and not a direct democracy, and so the individual members of the County Council are the ones who appoint members of the Planning Commission (each for a 5 year term). Council Members select from a pool of candidates who have volunteered to serve by submitting a short Request For Appointment form (“RFA”) to which is attached ad hoc whatever information a candidate believes would be relevant to his or her selection. The form clearly states that the RFA information is expected to be public: “Your information…will be made available to the media if requested.”

By coincidence, one of the very first tasks of this new Council is to select a new Planning Commissioner. Thirteen citizens submitted RFAs by the November 30th deadline. At the outset the County was reluctant even to release the names of applicants; in response to an inquiry the County attorney emailed on Dec 4th that ”an issue has arisen…our office is researching.” On Dec 7th the names were released but with the surprising statement that “it is unusual for the County to receive a request for this information. The County reserves the right to develop new policies governing the release of prospective board members names going forward.” In literature, this is a foreshadowing.

The County then denied a request for permission to come in and simply look at the submitted RFA forms! The County’s reply cited a provision of the Maryland Code (“a public records custodian is required to deny inspection of a personnel record…”), also citing a 1998 court case (in which, incidentally, the sought records were required to be released).

The Bipartisan Coalition of Talbot County has formally requested that the County reconsider its decision to keep the information secret, and a response is expected next week (likely after the Planning Commission appointment is made). There is no justification for the RFA information to have been withheld, other than to keep the public in the dark. And yet there is a very important reason for that information to be made public.

While it is indeed a legal question, the County really had to reach for a rationale to withhold the information. We believe they are wrong for these reasons:

The RFA form expressly states that the information, voluntarily submitted, will very likely be made public—“released to the media if requested.” There has never been any expectation of privacy.
The Request For Appointment form is not even an “application,” yet the County’s legal argument focuses on that word in a technical manner.
A Commissioner, as an unpaid volunteer, is also not an “employee,” and the technical reference to a “personnel file” really does not apply.
The court case cited (and other cases in which it is cited in turn) are replete with clear statements about the primacy of the public’s right to information over crabbed and narrow efforts to keep information hidden away. For example

“`the provisions of the Public Information Act reflect the legislative intent that citizens of the State of Maryland be accorded wide-ranging access to public information concerning the operation of their government'” We have on several occasions explained that the provisions of the statute “must be liberally construed . . . in order to effectuate the Public Information Act’s broad remedial purpose.”

Indeed, in every case we reviewed, the court basically upheld the public’s right to information over the government’s right to secrecy.

Why is this important? The release of the basic RFA data volunteered by candidates is important because, without at least that minimal amount of information, we, the directly affected citizens, have no basis whatever to judge whether the Council Members we elected have made a good decision or not. The choice of a Commissioner is not our decision—it is theirs. But we certainly should be afforded the opportunity to judge if their choice appears to be the best (or at least a reasonable) candidate based on the overall good of the County…. or perhaps not—perhaps a well-motivated candidate but of limited qualifications chosen by a narrow Council majority for reasons other than a commitment to our Comprehensive Plan. No way to know.

The point above applies not just to the final selection of a Commissioner from a short list of four, but to the entire process. One example: no woman has served on the Planning Commission for several years. Yet 3 of the 13 who volunteered this time were women and none were short-listed. Were they all patently unqualified? Again, who can know?

We do not quarrel with short-listed candidates being interviewed in Executive Session, or Council Members discussing candidates in private. Still, why should the actual votes of individual Council Members be secret? (Indeed, the Talbot County Charter at Section 212(e) provides that “All voting, except on procedural matters, shall be by roll call.”)

With 13 candidates, one would think unanimity would not be difficult to find; surely several are qualified and free of any “problematic” attributes. But if not, why should the public not know if the Planning Commissioner selected was chosen by a 4-1 or 3-2 vote? If that information is secret, the public has no idea how to allocate the credit—or the blame—if a selection appears particularly wise or particularly foolish. Why should a Council Member opposed to a problematic selection be precluded from letting the public know his or her position? What public purpose does that serve?

Finally, note that the law cited by the County provides in part that “if a custodian believes that inspection … by the applicant would be contrary to the public interest… the custodian may deny inspection….” We ask how would the release of the RFA information be contrary to the public interest? It is keeping this information secret that is adverse to Talbot citizens; the sole beneficiaries of secrecy are those who wish to make decisions without accountability.

Dan Watson
The Bipartisan Coalition of Talbot County
.

Letters to Editor

  1. S. D. Swan says

    I appreciate your diligence with regard to the deliberations of the County Council, and I agree that this information should be available to citizens. Thank you, Dan.

  2. Jeffrey Staley says

    I completely agree with Dan and support his position. “Democracy dies in darkness” and every time in my 65 years someone has wanted to avoid how someone was selected or how some rule was developed, there has been some underlying shortcut or bias that someone was trying to obscure. If you can’t stand upon the court house steps to publicly announce and explain your choices, you either have something to hide or you have not spent enough effort coming to the decision.

    Democracy can be messy and it demands a lot more effort than autocracy. But, it is always worth the extra effort. Please discuss.

  3. Chris Koch says

    How can a concerned citizen NOT agree with Dan’s position. Transparency and accountability used to be bedrocks to our democracy. Keep them honest and insist that our representatives, represent all of us in an open manner.
    Chris Koch

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