Carroll County commissioners have lost their case against several media organizations and now must decide whether to comply with a judge's order to turn over email lists or appeal.
The five commissioners plan to meet in closed session Thursday to discuss the case, which resulted in a court order last week giving the board until early February to provide email distribution lists used by the commissioners, including the email addresses. If they choose to challenge the ruling before the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, they would have until mid-February to do so.
In an opinion issued Jan. 16, retired Howard County Circuit Judge Dennis M. Sweeney ruled against the commissioners, who in March denied a Carroll County Times reporter's request under the Maryland Public Information Act for mailing lists, including email addresses, that the commissioners use to contact groups of people.
The Times' reporter's case was later joined by The Baltimore Sun, the Washington Post and WMAR-TV.
The commissioners argued that releasing email addresses would "cause substantial injury to the public interest," because it could compromise citizens' privacy and possibly discourage people from contacting the board.
Sweeney ruled these public-interest concerns "are not trivial" and perhaps the state legislature should review the policy. But he ruled that they did not meet the standard of evidence of potential "injury" to public interest.
Charles Tobin, a Washington-based lawyer who represented the media companies, said the lists were compiled by commissioners to contact groups of people. The email addresses are significant in understanding the way the county does business and were worth fighting to get, he said.
"The case will help prevent officials from building secret societies of supporters by using government email to communicate exclusively with them," Tobin said. "An important part of open government is knowing who whispers in the ears of our elected officials."
Commissioner Richard S. Rothschild, for instance, has a list called "Conservative Counties," and an email newsletter, "Inside the Boardroom," that he sent to one of the lists, Tobin said.
County Attorney Timothy C. Burke declined to respond to requests for comment. Rothschild, vice president of the board of five Republicans, said in an email that media organizations operate under a partisan double standard.
When Gov. Martin O'Malley refused a Carroll County man's request for an email list, claiming "substantial injury to the public interest," no issue was made of it, he said. But "the media was indignant when a Republican Board of Commissioners refused to release citizens' private email addresses for the exact same reason."
According to papers filed in the Carroll commissioners case, James M. Graham III in 2011 withdrew his request to the governor after O'Malley's office responded by saying it would file suit seeking to protect the records, which is how the Carroll commissioners responded to the newspaper's request. In an affidavit filed with the case, Graham said he found the reference to possible litigation "intimidating."
Tobin agreed the Graham-O'Malley instance is significant, but not for the reasons Rothschild gave.
"What O'Malley did points out why this case is important," Tobin said. "Citizens should not be forced to back down from their rights for fear of litigation."
The county could be on the hook now for the media groups' court costs. Tobin said he believes his clients could collect, but he said no decision has been made on whether to pursue that in court.