Local governments hide public records, face few consequences

From The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel For more than three decades, Nick Maravell and his family farmed on a 20-acre plot in suburban Maryland, tucked between the Potomac River and megamansions in Potomac, a tony suburb that is home to powerful lobbyists, government contractors and other wealthy families.

Nick’s Organic Farm, a relaxed place where customers would stop by to pick up some vegetables or simply drop in for a chat, was a tenant on land owned by the county public school system. But one day in 2011, Maravell got some bad news. Montgomery County’s top elected official and his aides had been negotiating in secret to get the school board to kick out Maravell’s farm and rent the site to a private soccer club.

“It caught everybody by surprise,” said Curt Uhre, a neighbor.

Residents who cherished the farm quickly rallied to Maravell’s side. Worried about traffic and the potential loss of open space, they began researching the county’s proposal to convert the farm to soccer fields.

During the legal fight, they also began learning about Maryland’s open records law. Used frequently by journalists and business interests, the state’s public records law allowed them to seek government documents — memos, officials’ calendars and other items — that might offer clues to how the deal was done or hints about who had been speaking with whom, when the plans were hatched and why.

But when residents asked for those documents, they hit a wall: Montgomery County government officials said they could not find many emails, letters and calendars related to their search.

This seemed preposterous, so the residents took the only route available to them — they went to court. A skeptical county judge urged the government to look anew for missing documents. Officials soon managed to find most of what the residents had sought.

The details weren’t pretty.

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