(1/11) In reaction to newspaper reports critical of its elected leaders, Thurmont has enacted a policy of billing the public for information solicited from the town’s attorney.
Mayor Martin A. Burns last month said he didn’t ‘‘necessarily think [it is] the best policy in the world." But on Tuesday, he defended it, saying it would cut costs.
‘‘The taxpayers shouldn’t be supporting [members of the press] that are looking for material for their business," Burns said.
Burns did not know whether the town’s attorney, N. Lynn Board of the Frederick firm Board and Borden, had yet billed anyone for her time spent answering questions about town business.
It was Katherine Heerbrandt, a former reporter for The Gazette and current contributor to The Thurmont Dispatch and The Frederick News Post, who prompted the town’s decision, Burns said.
‘‘There was a columnist who called and e-mailed [Board], asking her specific questions," Burns said last month. ‘‘We’re like, ‘Why are we paying?’"
Burns said Heerbrandt’s questions for Board were in reference to ongoing litigation that pits the town against a handful of homeowners who suffered sewer backups in 2003. The town is appealing a
2007 verdict that found it liable for $2.55 million in sewer-overflow damages to seven homes on Thurmont’s south end.
Heerbrandt wrote in an e-mail to The Gazette that her inquiries to the town have been ‘‘minimal, consisting of a brief e-mail exchange on Sept. 5, 2007 regarding the Myers farm annexation, and one
phone call on Feb. 13, 2006, also regarding the annexation."
Burns admitted that the cost for Board answering media questions about the sewer lawsuit has come ‘‘not even close" to stretching the town’s $3 million annual budget, but could not give specific
amounts for the legal charges.
Heerbrandt said that ‘‘the fact that Mr. Burns has no supporting evidence to back up his claim speaks for itself."
The town has budgeted $60,500 for legal services for fiscal 2008.
Messages left for Board were not returned, but William H. Blakeslee, Thurmont’s chief administrative officer, said Board charges $350 per hour.
The Gazette requested billing invoices sent to the town by Board for the period May 1 through Oct. 30, 2007. The town had not provided those documents by The Gazette’s press time.
Jack Murphy, executive director of the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association, said this week it is ‘‘ridiculous" for the town to direct questions about pending legal matters to Board and then
charge people for Board’s time.
‘‘The town has an obligation to talk to citizens and newspapers about town issues," Murphy said. ‘‘They’re not conducting their business in private. If they defer to the attorney [for comment],
then I just think it’s wrong to charge for the right to discuss town affairs with the town attorney. That just doesn’t make any sense to me."
Jim Peck, research director of the Maryland Municipal League, agreed that Thurmont’s move is unusual.
Towns do restrict the public and the media’s access to their attorneys, and in cases where towns are facing litigation, it is normal for attorneys not to comment, he said.
But Thurmont is the first town Peck is aware of that has directed its attorney to charge the press and the public for answers on municipal matters.
A discussion during a closed session spurred commissioners to action, and Burns, on behalf of the board, made the following announcement at a Nov. 6 town meeting:
‘‘Any questions with regard to the [Ironmaster Court sewer] case should be forwarded to our town attorney. Any press that is requesting anything, or the public for that matter, through our town
attorney, who bills us on an hourly basis, will be charged whatever it costs our attorney to give you the answer that you request."
Thurmont’s four commissioners did not discuss the policy after the announcement.