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Thursday, January 15, 2009

Scofflaw PG County officials ordered to obey Maryland Public Information Act

County Must Release Crime Information; Ruling Stems From Comment by Johnson.
Post, 15 Jan 2009 (Wiggins).
A state appeals court ruled recently that Prince George's must release information related to County Executive Jack B. Johnson's assertion three years ago that some apartment complexes are "breeding grounds" for crime.

The documents have been sought by an association representing apartment owners who are seeking to refute the statements by Johnson (D).

Late last month, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals affirmed a 2007 decision by Prince George's County Circuit Court Judge Albert W. Northrop. He had ordered county officials to honor the request for information filed by the Apartment and Office Building Association of Metropolitan Washington under the Maryland Public Information Act.

The decision by the state's second-highest court comes after years of legal wrangling between the apartment owners and the county over the public-information request.

The battle began in August 2006 after the county did not respond fully to a request filed in July 2005. Under the Maryland Public Information Act, such requests are supposed to be answered within 30 days.

"They stonewalled us," Shaun Pharr, an attorney for the building owners group, said, referring to communication with the county before the lawsuit. "They grudgingly in the fall of 2007 provided us with some information."

But the association was not given all of the information it wanted.

Its request sought all records and documents, including e-mails, pertaining to the county's "apartment action list"; criteria for placing a property on the list; inspections and code enforcement for properties on the list; meetings and agendas in which the list was discussed; calls for police service at apartments on the action list; the outcome of such calls; and the average police response time to the apartments.

The association has sought to disprove a statement Johnson made during a midterm address in January 2005 that 117,000 calls for police had been made in 2004 regarding serious crimes at several county apartment complexes. In his speech, Johnson raised the possibility of shutting down the crime-riddled apartment complexes, which left some of their residents worried about where they would live.

About two months later, Johnson said 19,000 calls to police had been made to help stop homicides, shootings, burglaries and other serious crimes at the 22 complexes. County officials blamed the discrepancy on incorrect figures in a report by then-police chief Melvin C. High.

In the appeals court ruling, the judges rejected the county's assertion that some of the records could not be found and ordered them turned over to the association. The judges agreed with the lower court, which had determined that the county is in possession of documents that it has not given the association.

The owners group had presented a document from the county chief of staff to county employees that reminded them about a meeting to discuss the "initiatives and progress of the apartment task force as it relates to the twenty-two properties covered in the initiative." The association obtained that document through its own channels, but it was never produced by the county.

The court also ruled that the county should pay attorney fees incurred by the owners group.

Although the owners said they were pleased with the overall decision, not every point in the ruling went their way.

The judges ruled that the lower court had overstepped its authority when it imposed a $5,000-a-day fine against the county to be paid to the Apartment and Office Building Association until the documents were provided.

"The statute does not include a provision that permits a court to levy a fine for noncompliance," Judge Albert J. Matricciani Jr. wrote in the opinion.

"We're pleased that the county did not have to pay the $5,000 a day," said John Erzen, a spokesman for the county. "That should not have gone forward."

Matricciani said such a levy would encourage the party receiving the money "to continue to dispute the adequacy of the responses in an attempt to collect more money."

Instead of the fine, the judges suggested that the Circuit Court consider whether a contempt of court charge should be filed against the "responsible" county employee.

Erzen said he could not comment on the appellate judges' recommendation because the matter is pending before the Circuit Court.

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