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Carroll County Times Fights County Over Email Addresses

By T.C. Cameron

The Carroll County Board of Commissioners has gone to court to try to keep its email distribution lists from being released to the news media and the public.

The Carroll County Times is fighting the county’s efforts to keep information in these emails out of the public’s reach. The paper, winner of MDDC’s James S. Keat award in 2012, is seeking input from other MDDC papers regarding similar PIA issues.

“We’re actively seeking instances from other papers to determine if they have gotten lists of this type from their elected officials or if they have encountered similar roadblocks,” said Times editor Jim Lee said.

The issue first arose in December 2011, when the commissioners made a unanimous decision to redact all email addresses from documents requested in Public Information Act requests (PIA).

County commissioner Richard Rothschild said if people wanted to see the addresses, they’d have to sue the county.

“If it gets challenged, it gets challenged,” Rothschild told the Times. “I think we should use our discretionary authorities … to redact these emails. We certainly have enough documentation and evidence that it was not an unreasonable thing to do. It was done without malice. It was not done to circumvent the public information laws."

The Maryland Attorney General’s office disagreed. After being asked for opinion by the commissioners, it waited nearly a year to offer a response advising against the board’s practice of unilaterally redacting the addresses from emails. Undaunted, the board continued the practice.

In January, the commissioners asked State Sen. Joseph Getty (R-Dist. 5) to introduce legislation in this year’s General Assembly to change the Public Information Act to approve their practices. Getty introduced three bills related to the issue. SB 844 would require a notice on the government’s website warning that an email address could be released. That bill was held for summer study. SB 880 would have prohibited the release of government email databases, but it was killed in committee. However, Getty’s SB 845 that would require the government to redact email addresses has passed the Senate and will be heard in the House this week. MDDC and other groups are opposing the bill.

Carroll County Times’ editors Wayne Carter and Jim Lee and reporter Christian Alexandersen had begun to mount a formal challenge of the county’s practice.

Alexandersen filed a PIA request on Feb. 12 asking the commissioners for their email distribution lists. In response, the board asked the Times to hold the request until the legislature voted on Getty’s bill.

The Times sent a letter stating the importance of county citizens to know who is communicating with their county government and elected officials and refused deferment of the request.

On Feb. 28, the board voted 3-1 in favor of going to court rather than fulfill the Times’ legal request. On March 19, the county asked the Carroll County Circuit Court to allow a judge to decide if the Times’ request should be granted.

“We take our responsibility as the county’s primary new source very seriously and believe strongly in openness of government and freedom of information,” Alexandersen told ExPress News. “By comparison, this board has established a habit of systematically shutting the public out of the government decision making process by holding secret meetings, making decisions behind closed doors and obfuscating information.”

The most recent article is available here. Contact Christian Alexandersen at 410-857-7873 or email him here.

~MDDC Executive Director Jack Murphy contributed to this report

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