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Politics

Open records law violation becomes political flashpoint in Howard County election season

Democrat Calvin Ball and Republican Allan Kittleman during a 2018 debate in Ellicott City. At the time, Ball was challenging Kittleman for the job of county executive. In 2022, he's the incumbent, and Kittleman is running in hopes of regaining the seat.

When the dust settled on election night in Howard County four years ago, Republican County Executive Allan Kittleman traveled to Democrat Calvin Ball’s victory party to embrace him and concede in person.

Both men in the following weeks sang the praises of the county’s civility and bipartisanship — a tradition that’s seen Democrats and Republicans alike serving as county executive and where divisive leaders in Washington, D.C., could learn something, they said.

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Four years later, Ball and Kittleman are facing off again for the county’s top job. The mood isn’t quite the same.

Ball accuses Kittleman and his supporters of an extended “Donald Trump, Dan Cox-style political stunt” that began more than a year ago with a public records request.

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Kittleman and former Del. Bob Flanagan, who filed the request and a subsequent lawsuit that found Ball’s office violated public disclosure laws, say it’s a matter of transparency.

The civil case, which a judge agreed to dismiss last month after the county acknowledged the violations and agreed to pay the maximum penalties, lives on. Kittleman is running ads highlighting the situation and Ball is saying his opponents “weaponized” Maryland’s Public Information Act for campaign purposes.

“Despite this frivolous lawsuit, I’m proud of our record on transparency and we’re going to keep doing the people’s business — despite these costly political tactics by Mr. Kittleman and his supporters,” Ball said.

‘Test the system’

Flanagan asked in June 2021 for emails between Ball, other county employees and a lobbyist. His stated goal: to “test the system” after another county resident made a similar request and was largely denied.

The county identified almost 750 such emails, but said it couldn’t release nearly 500 of them because doing so would reveal either internal deliberations or information protected by attorney-client privilege.

Flanagan, a lawyer who served as transportation secretary under Republican Gov. Bob Ehrlich, represented himself in the suit he filed in August 2021 in Howard County Circuit Court seeking the emails.

Court records show Flanagan deposed some of the county executive’s employees, including Jamila Ratliff, who had denied his request. Ratliff was Ball’s campaign manager in 2018 and had since worked for the county. She is also Ball’s sister-in-law and, records show, she’s been paid by his 2022 campaign for her political work.

Ratliff withheld the emails without first having them reviewed by the county’s Office of Law, according to court documents. Eventually, lawyers in that office reviewed the materials and the county released nearly every email to Flanagan by the end of 2021.

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Flanagan said the emails don’t reveal anything improper between the county and the lobbyist. Still, he said, it’s important for the public to know who has “influence” and “free access to [the county executive’s] office.”

“You’re entitled to bring in a lobbyist to talk to you whenever you want. But when you schedule him, the public would like to know that,” Flanagan said.

While Ball sought to tie efforts like Flanagan’s to tactics used by Trump and Cox, Flanagan said he changed his voter registration from Republican to unaffiliated after Cox won the GOP nomination in the July 19 primary. Kittleman is a moderate Republican who called for Trump to resign within days after the riot at the U.S. Capitol and supported Cox’s chief opponent in the primary.

Meetings by email

The emails did, however, reveal another violation — this time of the state’s Open Meetings Act. Members of the Ellicott City Community Development Corporation Exploration Committee conducted business using email instead of during public meetings.

County lawyers acknowledged violations of both laws and, by this spring, offered to pay the maximum amount of statutory damages — $1,000 for the PIA violation and $500 for the open meetings violation — as well as Flanagan’s litigation costs and reimbursement for a fee he paid the county to conduct the email search.

Any other finding by the judge — including whether the violations were “willful” — would be “superfluous and redundant,” county lawyers argued.

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Flanagan believes the question of intent was important, especially because of the former campaign manager’s role, which he considers improper.

“I wanted there to be accountability, if accountability was appropriate,” Flanagan said.

Circuit Judge Robert A. Greenberg, in a July 29 hearing, said “there could be evidence” showing a “willful” violation, pointing to documents presented by Flanagan in which other members of Ball’s staff advised Ratliff to seek a legal review of documents before deciding what to release. The judge also said while the county was not saying it willfully and knowingly violated the law, it was “in effect” acknowledging it did so because it offered to pay the maximum penalties.

However, court records show the judge granted the county’s motion to dismiss the case once it verifies the county paid the penalties.

Ratliff, in an emailed statement, said any assertion that a violation was made “willfully and knowingly” is “flatly incorrect,” pointing to the judge’s dismissal without ruling on that issue. She said the initial denial of records was based on her understanding of the law at the time.

‘Obviously completely political’

In the campaign, the case has transformed into more than an open records dispute.

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“Did Calvin Ball & his staff knowingly break the law?” reads an ad Kittleman started running online in recent weeks. It’s reached tens of thousands of people, according to Facebook’s Ad Library.

Kittleman said he had “no involvement in the case,” but acknowledged Flanagan asked him how he handled PIA requests while in office. He said Flanagan updated him as the case proceeded, but he hasn’t been directly involved and hasn’t seen the email records.

Flanagan said he’s close with Allan Kittleman and supports his campaign. But he said he filed his records request before Kittleman started running in September 2021 and the situation “could’ve been resolved in a month” with the release of the records.

Ball asserts the case was “obviously completely political” because the documents were turned over and the county offered to settle the case.

He said the number of records requests the county receives skyrocketed during his term — partially as a result of his opponents making queries in a “coordinated, political” way. In 2014, when Kittleman was elected, the county executive’s office received about 90 requests. So far in 2022, Ball said, the number has eclipsed 1,000.

“We believe in transparency. We want the public to have the information and, although we saw this increase in PIAs … sometimes we’re going to make mistakes. And we acknowledge that mistakes were made and we did what we could do to address and correct those,” Ball said.

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Asked about the decision to have his campaign manager and relative handle records requests, Ball said he trusts county employees and “sometimes people can disagree with personnel decisions.”

“We have worked very hard to get information out to the public and we’re going to continue to work very hard,” Ball said.

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Ratliff, the campaign manager, left county employment in February to return full time to Ball’s campaign. Campaign finance records show that while she worked for the county, the campaign paid her about $55,000 from 2019 through 2021 for consulting and expenses. From mid-January through the end of June this year, the campaign paid her $59,730, records show.

Ratliff said it was “appropriate and common for public employees to engage in political work on their own time.”

“I was fully transparent about my work with Mr. Ball’s campaign throughout my tenure as a Howard County employee,” Ratliff said. “Mr. Flanagan and the Kittleman campaign are distorting a common practice as part of a dirty, negative campaign that is resorting to baseless allegations because they have no record to run on and no vision for how to best serve the residents of our great County.”

Less politics, more policy?

The episode prompted legislation that would require county lawyers to review requested records before any are withheld or redacted. Republican Councilman David Yungmann said the goal of his bill is to remove politics — or at least more of the potential for political motivations — from the process.

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“In this case, somebody with, I think, a high level of political motivations was the final arbiter of responding to public information act requests,” Yungmann said of Ratliff.

Yungmann said he has a good relationship with Ball and the election didn’t play a role in proposing the bill.

“This is good policy, whether it’s an election year or who’s county executive,” Yungmann said.


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