- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 10, 2012

A Montgomery County judge on Tuesday upheld a public information request from a coalition of well-funded citizen groups who had been stonewalled in their efforts to uncover details about a county project to transform a 20-acre farm in an affluent neighborhood of Potomac into soccer fields.

Circuit Court Judge Ronald B. Rubin also made it more difficult for the county to hide behind confidentiality privileges as it fulfills the request. He ordered the county and complaining citizen groups to collaborate on a digital scavenger hunt to determine the legality of the county’s decision to sublease longtime farmland along Brickyard Road.

He also ordered the county to be more specific in identifying any documents it thinks are exempt from public disclosure, and why they should be kept from the public.

Keith Williams, president of the Civic Association of River Falls, one of the community groups demanding information from the county, called Judge Rubin’s decision “a win for open government.”

“With this, we’re finally going to get what we’ve been trying to get for months,” he said.

The judge’s order directs the county and the Brickyard Coalition — composed of the River Falls civic group, the West Montgomery County Citizens’ Association, and the Brickyard Citizens’ Association — to draw the guidelines of a search through the county’s digital archives for anything related to leasing the land. The land is owned by the Montgomery County Board of Education and had been leased to the farm for years.

For decades the farm has been a good, quiet neighbor, coalition members said. Last year, news broke that the land was going to be leased to the county, and MSI Soccer, a nonprofit organization in Montgomery County, would be building soccer fields there.

Community groups have demanded public records as far back as November 2009 to show the negotiations among the county, the Board of Education and MSI Soccer. The county could not produce a complete record, but the Board of Education and MSI have documents that refer to the property.

The two sides have until July 20 to plan the search. The case is scheduled to return to court Aug. 14.

The order came after Assistant County Attorney Scott R. Foncannon told Judge Rubin and coalition attorney Brian Barkley that at 4:30 p.m. on Monday, a county employee had discovered 30 to 40 emails that may be considered in the public information request.

An email to let Mr. Barkley know about the discovery Monday night was sent to the wrong address.

Mr. Foncannon said a “full and complete computer scan” should be done by the county’s IT department.

“Once that is done, any documents not provided, will be,” he added. “This reassures that the county does take this very seriously and has interest in complying with the request. There has never been any interest or attempt to hide or deny any documents.”

Mr. Barkley reminded the judge that the public information request was made in November with a resolution expected within 30 days. Eight months later, an incomplete timeline of documents was finally produced, and now an additional 30 or 40 more emails were found.

The problem, Mr. Barkley said, is that if the county is standing by its good faith effort, then why is it that “now, all of a sudden, things are showing up?”

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