Carroll County Going to Court Over Newspaper Request
A local newspaper recently asked for all email lists from the five Carroll County commissioners.
The Board of Carroll County Commissioners voted, 3-1, to go to court over a recent Public Information Act (PIA) request asking for the commissioner's email distribution lists.
Maryland’s Public Information Act gives the public the right to access government records without unnecessary cost and delay, according to the State’s Attorney General’s Office.
The Carroll County Times requested "all email distribution lists from Carroll County commissioners" in a PIA request on Feb. 12 according to Carroll County attorney Timothy Burke.
The request came following a decision from the attorney general's office that local governments should not unilaterally redact email addresses from PIA requests. However, the attorney general's 16-page opinion also noted that there are some circumstances when it is appropriate for email addresses to be redacted.
Several bills have been introduced to the state legislature by Sen. Joseph Getty, R-Carroll, that suggest email addresses should not be disclosed in PIA requests, Burke said in a letter to the Times.
In a Feb. 21 meeting, the commissioners directed Burke to contact the Times to clarify what an "email distribution list" is and to ask if the newspaper would consider deferring its request until the bills have been acted on by the legislature.
In a letter dated Feb. 25, the Times responded to the county's request saying it is "important for residents to know who is communicating with their government and elected officials." The newspaper said it would not defer its request.
In an open session meeting Thursday, Feb. 28, the commissioners voted, 3-1, in favor of petitioning the court for a decision to determine if the email addresses are public information.
Commissioner Haven Shoemaker was not in favor of going to court, saying that the law at this time includes disclosing email addresses in PIA requests.
"I think we ought to comply," Shoemaker said. "I think we should work with the legislature on changing the laws."
In its opinion, the office of the attorney general implied that the county may have some success if it petitioned the court for a ruling on disclosing personal email addresses.
"... we think that a Maryland court might find the disclosure of personal e-mail addresses in some circumstances intrudes on privacy interests, or discourages citizens from contacting their government, in a way that is unwarranted by the public's interest in disclosure."
Commissioner Doug Howard said that he has no problem with sharing his email distribution lists, but said that this presents a good opportunity to have the courts weigh in on a controversial topic.
"I would be wiling to avail ourselves of the process of what was recommended [by the attorney general] and let the courts weigh in on this once and for all," Howard said.
Burke said that there will be no penalties if the court determines the email addresses must be released to the Times and he said costs will be minimal as outside counsel will not be required.
Commissioner Richard Rothschild was testifying in Annapolis and not at the commissioner meeting to participate in the vote.