“Baltimore County improperly withheld some documents sought by former official, judge says”

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In Baltimore County improperly withheld some documents sought by former official, judge says – Baltimore Sun (Mar. 13, 2024), Jeff Barker reported on a decision by The Hon. Michael J. Finifter under Maryland’s sunshine law, known as the “Maryland Public Information Act.”  The MPIA is Maryland’s analog to the federal Freedom of Information Act.

Based on the news article, Baltimore County had entered into a confidential settlement agreement with a former firefighter to resolve disputed retirement claims.  Earlier news reports state: “Baltimore County did not notify its County Council last year about a confidential settlement totaling more than $86,000 despite a law that requires council members be provided a list of settlements annually.”  Taylor Deville, Baltimore County Council not notified of $86,000 settlement last year despite disclosure requirement – Baltimore Sun (Sept. 4, 2021).

An MPIA request was made and rejected.  A lawsuit followed.  Mr. Barker reports that a former County administrative officer alleged that the current administration “violated the Maryland Public Information Act by refusing to turn over thousands of emails and by charging unreasonable fees for public records.”  Id.  Plaintiff’s attorney was quoted:

“The less you want to show it to me, the more I need to see it,” said Rignal W. Baldwin V, Homan’s attorney, in an interview Wednesday. “What’s the need for secrecy in county government?”

Mr. Barker reported on the Court’s decision:

“The confidentiality provision is not basis for withholding the settlement agreement,” the judge wrote in a Feb. 1 opinion that said the agreement was “wrongfully withheld.”

The Circuit Court for Baltimore County’s decision is not available on Westlaw.  The Court docket states only that “the retirement records exemption of the MPIA be interpreted narrowly, and that ‘retirement records’ for the purposes of the MPIA be defined as documents that can be indexed by name or social security number and which contain retirement-related information, etc.”

In another news report, J. Barker, PressReader.com – Digital Newspaper & Magazine Subscriptions (Mar.  14, 2024), it is stated that the Court “ruled that other documents, including correspondence between officials about [the firefighter’s] case, should also be released but that other records were properly withheld because of privacy considerations such as attorney-client privilege.”

The news reports did not address the allegation that the County charged an unreasonable fee for the MPIA request.  Fee waivers and cost-shifting may be permitted, depending on whether a request is made and on the facts presented in support of a request. See Maryland’s “Sunshine Law”:  Cooperation, Searches, Metadata, and Costs (Part III), citing Baltimore Police Dep’t v. Open Just. Baltimore, 2023 WL 5616318 (Md. Aug. 31, 2023), on the waiver issue.  It is not clear from the news reports whether a waiver was requested.

The docket reflects a subsequent fee petition, discovery requests, a motion for protective order, and a motion to enforce and petition for contempt.

I have written a series of blogs on the Maryland Public Information Act.  See Maryland’s “Sunshine Law”:  Cooperation, Searches, Metadata, and Costs (Part III) (Sept. 22, 2023).  The Maryland Attorney General has posted the office’s “PIA Manual (18th ed.).