Following a recent decision by the State’s Attorney General’s Office stating that local governments should not unilaterally redact email addresses from Public Information Act (PIA) requests, the Carroll County Times made a request for "all email distribution lists from Carroll County commissioners."
According to Carroll County Attorney Timothy Burke, the county received the Times' PIA request on Feb. 12. The county has 30 days to respond to the request. Maryland’s Public Information Act gives the public the right to access government records without unnecessary cost and delay, according to the attorney general's office.
In a December 2011 board of Carroll County commissioners meeting, the board unanimously voted to redact email addresses from PIA requests, citing security concerns. The board asked the State's Attorney General's Office to weigh in on its decision.
The State's Attorney General's Office returned its opinion to the Board of Carroll County Commissioners in late December 2012 concluding that email addresses should not be unilaterally redacted from PIA requests. However, the attorney general's 16-page opinion also noted that there are some scenarios where it is appropriate for email addresses to be redacted.
In Thursday’s meeting, the commissioners concluded that the request from the Times was vague and therefore difficult to comply with. There were differing opinions on whether “all email distribution lists” refers to all names in a contact list, or all emails from any communication with the commissioners, or lists that have been created specifically to send out correspondence such as a newsletter.
“What they're really doing is they're [Carroll County Times] testing the law with this," Rothschild said.
According to Burke, if the county does not comply with the PIA request, the county must then petition the court to get a ruling on its decision to withhold the information.
Commissioner Robin Frazier pointed out that there is a bill being considered in Annapolis that would allow for the removal of email addresses from PIA requests.
Burke laid out several options for the commissioners. He said the county could ask for clarification from the Times on exactly what information they want. Or, Burk said, the board could ask the Times to wait until state legislation is voted on.
Commissioner Richard Rothschild commented that maybe the board should just go to the court to get a determination since the request is not cluttered by any other controversial issues.
"We're gonna have to reckon with this. This is a very simple request," Rothschild said. "There are no other peripheral issues involved here ... maybe we should go ahead and test it. Let's take it to the Circuit Court and let one of our judges decide. It's not going to get any easier than this, there's nothing else associated with this other than 'give me all your emails'."
Commissioner Haven Shoemaker said he would rather wait for statutory change than take a gamble with going to court. Rothschild said it could take months for the bill to be dealt with in state legislature.
The board directed Burke to ask the Times for clarification on their PIA request and to see if the Times is willing to hold the PIA request until the state makes a decision on the bill dealing with this issue.
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