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Carroll County News

Carroll commissioners spend nearly $180K on outside legal fees during term

Fighting to say Christian prayers at the beginning of public meetings, denying information to citizens and halting a $200-million-plus incinerator project costs money. The current, five-member Carroll County Board of Commissioners has spent nearly $180,000 of taxpayer money from an outside legal fund fighting those and other legal battles over the past four years.

Previous boards of commissioners have set aside money for outside legal funds to pay for litigation the Carroll County State's Attorney's Office can't handle. This board, which began serving in December 2010, has set aside anywhere from $125,000 to $500,000 a year to pay for outside legal costs.

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The board of commissioners has spent a total of $178,454 on outside legal representation over its last four years in office. The board has never spent more than $71,000 on outside legal expenses in any given year.

Commissioner Richard Rothschild, R-District 4, has often been the figurehead on the board fighting against what he believes are injustices. In the end, he receives support from the board of commissioners and it approves spending tens of thousands of dollars on outside legal counsel.

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"I believe it's appropriate for us to use legal money when it comes to defending our citizens' freedoms, when it comes to defending the Constitution and when it comes to defending the safety and security of our citizens," Rothschild said.

County Attorney Tim Burke said the outside legal fund is used to litigate issues that are beyond the county government's capabilities, whether it be because of staff or expertise.

Clean Chesapeake Coalition

The largest amount of money used in the fund has been to pay for membership fees to the Clean Chesapeake Coalition, a group of counties joined together to fight stormwater and other state mandates that are intended to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.

Nearly 50 percent of the money spent from the outside legal fund — $88,545 — was used for membership fees to the coalition. The money went to Funk and Bolton, a mid-Atlantic based law firm.

Rothschild defended the board's expenses for the coalition and explained how spending nearly $90,000 in membership fees benefits Carroll County taxpayers.

"The Clean Chesapeake Coalition is the only organization that is providing any kind of formidable defense against the state's ridiculous, non-scientific approach to cleaning up the bay," Rothschild said.

The coalition fights against wasteful spending on stormwater projects, which, Rothschild said, saves money for county taxpayers.

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While stormwater legislation continues to pass the Maryland General Assembly in Annapolis, Rothschild said the coalition has been successful in changing and refocusing the conversation. Rothschild said officials and candidates all over the state are being asked to consider cleaning up the Conowingo Dam and Susquehanna River before spending money on costly, less-effective projects as a result of the coalition.

"Wasteful treatment costs us tens of millions of dollars that doesn't fix the bay and it comes out of the pockets of our citizens," Rothschild said.

Maryland Public Information Act litigation

The county spent $14,732 to keep the Carroll County Times, and later the Baltimore Sun, Washington Post and WMAR-TV, from obtaining email distribution lists of people the commissioners communicate with. The media organizations had filed Maryland Public Information Act requests for the information but the board of commissioners denied them the records and decided to go to court.

The January decision by retired Howard County Circuit Court Judge Dennis Sweeney overturned the commissioners' December 2011 policy of unilaterally redacting people's personal email addresses from PIA requests, and the board of commissioners was forced to turn over documents to the media organizations.

The county argued that release of email addresses would have a "chilling effect" on communications it has with its residents and "would cause substantial injury to the public interest."

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In his memorandum, Sweeney wrote that "... the Board has not been able to demonstrate to the Court that if the email addresses are released to these media organizations that 'substantial injury to the public interest' will result."

Christian prayer lawsuit

The board of commissioners wanted to continue its practice of opening public meeting with sectarian Christian prayers. But in order to continue the practice, it would have to fight a lawsuit brought against it by two Carroll residents — Bruce Hake, of Union Bridge, and Neil Ridgely, of Finksburg.

Burke said the county gave $4,162 to the National Center for Life and Liberty, a legal nonprofit ministry that defends constitutional liberties and life interests, to pay for travel and accommodations for the lawyers performing pro bono work for the lawsuit.

In March, federal Judge William D. Quarles Jr. issued a preliminary injunction to keep the commissioners from continuing their practice of saying sectarian prayers. Commissioner Robin Bartlett Frazier, R-District 1, inflamed the issue when she opened a commissioners meeting with a Christian prayer and said she would go to jail for the cause.

In May, Quarles lifted the temporary injunction he placed on the board of commissioners after the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a 5-4 decision in Town of Greece v. Galloway that affirmed the constitutionality of the upstate New York town opening its board meetings with mostly Christian prayers.

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The board of commissioners formalized its process for opening public meetings with Christian prayers in June in order to comply with the U.S. Supreme Court decision. The lawsuit is still pending.

Frazier said it's important to fight for citizens' rights, which include their right to say a prayer at the beginning of public meetings. Even though the issue was directed at the board, Frazier said the county fought the lawsuit for the rights of all citizens.

"Our rights from all different angles are under attack and I think it's very appropriate for commissioners to be fighting for the rights of the people here in Carroll County. And that's what we've been doing," Frazier said. "Government's job is to protect the rights of the people, not take them away."

Rothschild agreed with Frazier and stressed the importance of the board fighting for their rights. If public officials are not willing to defend their own constitutional rights, Rothschild said, then why should citizens believe that the officials will defend their constitutional rights?

"There are political forces in this country that are hellbent on taking away our citizens' constitutional rights," Rothschild said. "I can guarantee our citizens this, if we don't defend then we will lose. The only way you can defend your rights is by asserting them."

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Waste-to-energy

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The county spent $23,702 on legal representation in an effort to get out of a contract with Frederick County to build a waste-to-energy trash incinerator. Duane Morris, an international law firm based in Baltimore, was hired to end the county's contract with Frederick.

Burke said outside legal counsel is required when the county needs attorneys with specialized practices, as was the case with the incinerator.

In April, the county chose to pay a $1 million penalty fee instead of becoming involved in the project. Had the commissioners not ended the contract, Carroll could have been on the hook for 40 percent of the $200 million-plus incinerator.

Rothschild said the county was on the hook to pay a $3 million penalty fee but the attorneys at Duane Morris got the fee down to $1 million. Spending $23,702 in lawyer fees saved the county $2 million, Rothschild said.

"The money that we've saved from the incinerator alone pays for the legal fees 10 times over," Rothschild said.

Reach staff writer Christian Alexandersen at 410-857-7873 or christian.alexandersen@carrollcountytimes.com.


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