Sep 29, 2016

County must turn over documents tied to Scientology-connected property

Danielle E. Gaines
September 29, 2016

Frederick County will have to turn over more than three dozen records it withheld from a public records request filed by a Church of Scientology-affiliated real estate group.

Frederick County Circuit Judge Scott Rolle ruled Monday that the county will have to turn over 39 documents or redacted portions of documents within the next 10 days.

Rolle concluded that the county did not knowingly and willfully violate the Maryland Public Information Act in responding to the request.

The records dispute is connected to a second lawsuit, in which Social Betterment Properties International, the Church of Scientology’s real estate arm, alleges religious discrimination by the County Council in a land-use decision.

The Frederick County Council voted in June 2015 and again in April of this year against a historic designation for Social Betterment’s property at Trout Run, a 40-acre Catoctin Mountain fishing camp.

The designation would have paved the way for a special exception under the county’s zoning ordinance. That exception would let the Church of Scientology open a group home for drug and alcohol abuse treatment, to be operated by Narconon, a program based on the writings and techniques of L. Ron Hubbard, Scientology’s founder.

In an August hearing, Jennifer Kneeland, an attorney representing Social Betterment, said seeing the redacted portions of the records in the Public Information Act dispute could help the organization understand whether there was discriminatory intent behind the council’s decision to deny the necessary zoning changes.

Kneeland questioned the county’s basis for redacting the information, saying the county didn’t meet the state’s standard for withholding the information under the exceptions for deliberative process, interagency communications or executive privilege.

She pointed to one withheld record that was disclosed by a different county attorney in the other court proceeding.

Linda Thall, a senior assistant county attorney, said that missed disclosure was an error and the county would not contest handing over a second copy of the record.

She said Social Betterment’s information request was very broad, yielding more than 1,300 pages of records from the county from before, during and after the council’s meetings on Trout Run.

Some documents in question are emails between council members. Others include interview requests from members of the media and internal discussions about executive branch policy changes during and after the council’s decision.

Rolle reviewed 64 disputed records to decide whether they should be turned over. He ruled that 18 remained privileged and that 39 records should be turned over. Rolle’s written opinion did not outline his conclusions on seven records.

Rolle concluded that some documents were not privileged because they did not contain deliberations between council members, which could be shielded, or were purely factual.

The judge also ruled on a complaint that the county violated the Maryland Public Information Act by failing to provide attachments to emails and by taking 48 days to respond. Rolle concluded that the county did not willfully and knowingly violate the public records law.

Under Maryland law, an agency generally has up to 30 days to meet or deny a request.

“Given the large number of documents, coupled with the presence of potentially privileged material, the Court finds that the Defendants acted as expeditiously as possible in responding to Plaintiff under the circumstances,” Rolle wrote.

He said that in addition to 1,300 documents that were turned over, the county provided an extensive log explaining the documents that are withheld.

“All of these acts, when taken together, show considerable effort ... to accommodate the Plaintiff’s MPIA request and comply with all applicable law,” he wrote.

Thall declined to comment Wednesday, citing a policy of not commenting on pending cases.

SBPI operates as a nonprofit organization that develops and maintains properties for the church’s social betterment programs. It purchased the land at Trout Run in September 2013.

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