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Court ruling in Baltimore County case could empower taxpayers to sue governments for wasteful spending

A lawsuit against Baltimore County can move forward after the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled that taxpayers have the right to sue jurisdictions to prevent waste or mismanagement of their tax dollars in a sweeping decision experts say could open the door to similar lawsuits.

The opinion, written by Judge Sally Adkins and filed last month, rules on a lawsuit filed by lead plaintiff Anne George of Timonium and two other Baltimore County residents. Those residents sued Baltimore County in 2014 alleging mismanagement of the county’s animal shelter.

Leslie Knapp Jr., legal and policy counsel for the Maryland Association of Counties, said the ruling could “potentially open the doors to more lawsuits through the ‘taxpayer standing’ standard alleging waste or abuse without any direct harm or nexus.”

Under this precedent, taxpayers do not have to show they are harmed in any special way other than being taxpayers to sue their governments for waste.

Michael Kennedy, an attorney for the plaintiffs, also said the ruling could make it easier for taxpayers to sue jurisdictions when they believe authorities are violating the law.

“My clients are very happy with the ruling and we look forward to continuing with the lawsuit,” Kennedy said.

County Attorney Michael Field did not respond to a request for comment, and county spokesman T.J. Smith declined to comment.

At issue was the doctrine of “taxpayer standing” — the right of taxpayers to sue. The ruling, Kennedy said, clarifies that taxpayers do not have to prove the county has raised taxes or that they are harmed more than other taxpayers to prove they are harmed by government mismanagement.

The Court of Appeals opinion reverses decisions by the Baltimore County Circuit Court and the Court of Special Appeals, the state’s second-highest court.

George, the lead plaintiff and a dog behavior therapist, said she is glad the case can proceed. She said the plaintiffs are seeking change, not money.

“Many of us who feel like we’ve been sort of the watchdog for years would like to have a seat at the table in some way,” George said.

Alan Sternstein, a Maryland appellate attorney who is not involved in the case, said the ruling could clear the path for taxpayers who see clear government waste to sue.

“It’s really courts setting precedents and principles for allowing clear wrongs to be challenged in some way,” Sternstein said.

The Circuit Court, where the case was filed, ruled against George in a summary judgment in 2016 because the county showed it had not raised taxes because of the shelter. That, according to the lower court, proved that the county’s management of the shelter was not injuring the taxpayers because their property, or tax burden, was not affected. The Court of Special Appeals upheld the ruling.

But the Court of Appeals found that whether or not a jurisdiction raises taxes, taxpayers as stakeholders are “reasonably entitled to a sound and careful use of funds.”

Since the Circuit Court’s ruling, County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. has proposed a tax increase, citing an $81 million deficit.

The opinion noted 18 affidavits submitted by the plaintiffs during the lawsuit. The affidavits alleged staff were improperly trained, and some people alleged that after adopting animals from Baltimore County Animal Services they discovered they had been “severely underfed.” Others alleged the department failed to provide veterinary care, quarantine sick animals, scan for microchips and sterilize animals before offering them for adoption.

“These allegations of waste amount to substantial inefficiency and unlawful misuse of public property and treasure, regardless of whether they are likely to cause an increase in taxes,” the Court of Appeals wrote.

The plaintiffs sought a writ of mandamus, a court order for the county to fulfill an action already required by law.

The county also argued that the plaintiffs had not established that they had a “special interest” in the wasted funds “distinct from the general public” — a key component of standing. But the Court of Appeals opinion said they had; as taxpayers, they had more of an interest than the general public that is not obligated to pay taxes to the county.

Under this ruling, Sternstein said, “it is enough that taxpayer allegations show economic waste.”

Kennedy said the ruling takes away “one of the arguments that a government would use to knock these suits out.”

With the question of standing settled, Kennedy said the case will get remanded to the lower courts, where his clients intend to continue pursuing it.

Baltimore County Animal Services already has seen massive upheaval since the case was originally filed in 2014. The shelter moved into a new facility in 2015 and revamped many of its procedures. Then in March, the county announced that four top officials at Animal Services, including director Dr. Melissa Jones, would no longer be working at the department. A job listing for the position of Chief of Animal Services was live online as of May 3.

Kennedy said those changes will prompt the plaintiffs to amend their complaint.

But George said there are still issues she would like addressed at the shelter, including intake for dogs with an illness or behavior issue and empowering the shelter volunteer corps.

Though she said conditions at the shelter have “gotten better,” unless change is implemented she plans to continue with the lawsuit.

“We’ve been hanging in here for almost five years,” George said. “We want to see that it stays on the right track.”

asolomon@baltsun.com

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