A Public Information Act dispute between Frederick County Councilman Billy Shreve (R) and county officials was resolved late this week, with more information soon headed toward Shreve’s office.
Shreve — who is prolific in his filing of information requests to county administration — had asked a state mediation program to intervene on a recent request earlier in the week.
County Executive Jan Gardner (D) said Friday that the county has worked to comply with Shreve’s information requests and that recent discussions with the county’s legal team resulted in a decision to revisit the request he said was not completed.
On Sept. 21, Shreve sent two Public Information Act requests to the county’s administration. The first was for a list of all zoning violations from Sept. 6, 2015, to Sept. 6, 2016 (he’d already requested and received a list of violations in 2016 and 2017). Shreve’s second request on Sept. 21 was for all contact information for each person who initiated a zoning complaint from Sept. 6, 2015, to Sept. 6, 2017.
The county attorney’s office initially responded that the second part of Shreve’s request — for complainant information — would take about six hours to complete and the estimated cost for planning and permitting staff to create the information would be $200.
Under the Maryland Public Information Act, government agencies can charge a “reasonable fee” for copies of public records. Governments can also charge a reasonable fee for searching for a public record, but the first two hours of search time are free.
When Shreve’s administrative assistant challenged the charge, the county attorney’s office responded that the information request was being rerouted through the county executive’s office.
Gardner said this week that the county briefly considered charging a fee, but decided against it.
“Part of the reason we’re doing this is because he’s a councilman. So we’re trying to accommodate his requests,” Gardner said this week.
On Oct. 23, Shreve was provided with a 41-page document that included basic details of 247 cases. Some of the items included contact information; others did not.
One of the complaints listed — a temporary dumpster — was reported by Shreve, according to the document.
In a news release Tuesday, Shreve announced that he requested the involvement of the Public Access Ombudsman’s Office because the complainant information had not been received in the 30-day time frame specified in Maryland’s Public Information Act.
The office mediates disputes between government bodies and those who have filed requests under the Maryland Public Information Act.
“It is a sad day in Frederick County when an elected Council Member has to file a MPIA request to obtain public information,” Shreve said in the news release. “I am appealing to the State Ombudsman for any help in this matter. I would remind the County Executive that the voters of this great County enabled me to be their voice and their representative, and I ask, how am I supposed to do that job effectively if I am unable to receive information which I have requested.”
Shreve said he has had difficulty obtaining information from county offices since he and Gardner took office under the new charter government structure in December 2014.
So far in 2017, Gardner said her office has received 38 requests for information from Shreve through an administrative process and four Public Information Act requests.
Whether the second half of Shreve’s Sept. 21 request was fulfilled adequately was “slicing hairs,” given that some contact information was included, Gardner said.
She said county legal staff had two things to consider in evaluating Shreve’s request: whether the contact information for private citizens must be released and whether the county was required to create a new record to respond to Shreve, as opposed to simply releasing records that already exist. The state law does not require the creation of new records.
After legal discussion, the county decided to go through all 250 cases to see if there is additional complainant information that was not initially released, Gardner said Friday.
Planning staff members believe that up to half of the records may not include any complainant information, she said.
“I will say, I think there’s a question about what is he going to do with the information. I think there’ll still be concern among the public that we’re releasing their names and contact information,” Gardner said. “... I am a little uncomfortable with releasing people’s names and phone numbers.”
In any active cases, where releasing contact information could influence the case, complainant information won’t be released, Gardner said.
On Friday evening, Shreve said that he intends to review the zoning violation information and complainant information to “look at it and see if there are any trends.”
“I also want to see how complete their records are,” Shreve said.
Gardner said she hopes releasing the information will not create a chilling effect that would discourage county residents from reporting a zoning violation.
Shreve has clashed with Gardner and county planning officials about zoning violations since the closing of a wedding venue in the county in 2016, when county officials found the business operating without necessary zoning approval or building, occupancy, electric or plumbing permits.
Shreve has questioned enforcement efforts, and at a July council meeting likened county zoning enforcers to South American gangs.
On Friday, Shreve said he was troubled by the number of zoning complaints being investigated.
“It’s like we have a secret police force out there looking for. ... I don’t know what they’re looking for,” he said.
Part of the tension over information-sharing stems from the division of the administrative and legislative branches under the new charter government.
The Frederick County Charter includes a section about “non-interference” between the executive and legislative branches of government. The charter says that neither the council nor any of its members “shall appoint, dismiss, or give directions to any individual employee of the Executive Branch of the Government,” with some exceptions. The non-interference section goes on to say that “it shall be the duty of the Executive to provide any information that is requested by the Council in writing for the purpose of introducing and evaluating legislation or to engage in the review and monitoring of Government programs, activities and policy implementation.”
Under charter government, “the Council” is generally presumed to mean a majority of members; the document says that the council is to “act as a body.”
Under a section detailing the duties of the county executive, the charter includes “providing the Council with any information the Executive deems necessary or, as the Council in writing may request, information concerning the executive branch which the Council may require for the exercise of its powers.”