- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
Visiting Judge James P. Salmon will make a decision in the coming days on a case brought against the county by the Accokeek Mattawoman Piscataway Creeks Community Council regarding a Public Information Act request for documents dealing with a nondisclosure agreement the county has with Dominion Cove Point.
Salmon heard the case Friday and said he would make a decision within a week.
On Nov. 21, the AMP council submitted a Public Information Act request to the office of the Calvert County attorney. On Dec. 12, John Norris, county attorney, informed the council it would be responsible for about $60,000 in reproduction and labor costs. The AMP council asked for a waiver of fees, but Norris said the county’s policy was to restrict fee waivers to journalists, according to the complaint from Sean Canavan, the lawyer representing the AMP council.
The request was for “copies of all correspondence between Dominion Cove Point … and the Calvert County government,” according to the complaint.
Canavan then narrowed the request, and the documents were provided for no charge. The revised request clarified the AMP council was not looking for correspondence or documentation that could not be released because it is covered under the nondisclosure agreement. The revised request specified the term covered was from Nov. 21, 2010, to the present.
The earliest document produced was dated July 27, 2012, and was a short email referencing the draft of the nondisclosure agreement.
“The nature of that email makes clear that there were many previous communications,” the complaint reads.
Canavan asserted during Friday’s hearing that Norris should not have denied the council a fee waiver, as he did in a phone conversation.
Victoria Shearer, the attorney representing the county, said Norris never denied Canavan a fee waiver because Canavan just revised his request.
“You can’t trick a public agency into not allowing your fee waiver request and then take them to court,” Shearer said Friday.
The county determined the original request would require more than 345 hours of work and more than 19,000 pages of documents, Norris said in an email Friday.
“The narrowed request, there is no dispute that it was responded to fully,” Shearer said Friday.
Some documents included in Canavan’s request were destroyed in the “normal course of business prior to receipt of his first request,” Norris wrote in the email.
The county has an informal policy that computer-held documents are destroyed after 30 days, Shearer said Friday. There is no final county document retention policy, and the county does not have its own Public Information Act policy because it just follows state law, Norris said in a phone interview Monday.
Canavan said he wanted the information in a timely manner to use it during hearings held by the Maryland Public Service Commission and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission about the proposed $3.8 billion liquefied natural gas export project at Dominion’s Cove Point facility in Lusby. The information was not provided in time, he said.
Canavan also contested the sufficiency of the search for documents the county conducted. Additionally, he said he was not permitted to see the county’s policies on the destruction of documents and Public Information Act requests.
“We’re not asking for anything intrusive,” Canavan said Friday. “… We’re asking for the search terms.”
“They used his own words in his own request to do the search,” Shearer said Friday.
Salmon wondered why there was such a high original price estimate of $60,000 when, in the end, little information was produced.
“That suggests there’s a whole lot of stuff to … copy and so forth,” Salmon said Friday.
Canavan said the $60,000 estimate means the county thought it would take an employee working full time for one year to produce the documents he requested.
“The fee was illegally imposed on us,” Canavan said.
Salmon could rule whether to allow discovery, Norris said. Discovery is for the different parties to ask each other for information and the other has to respond in a certain period of time. Norris said discovery is like the examination of a witness on the witness stand. Additionally, the judge can rule for summary judgment, which means there are enough facts to decide the case, Canavan said Monday. Salmon could require the county to release a certain amount of documents, Canavan said.
Canavan is withdrawing as counsel for the case within 10 days voluntarily, although there was a motion to disqualify him as counsel, as he took part in the disputed phone conversation with Norris about the denial of a fee waiver.
Salmon said not all of the needed documents regarding the case were provided to him, so he was not able to make an immediate ruling Friday.