Stewart et al. v Commissioners: Board Objects to Unsealing Meeting Minutes

The Board of Charles County Commissioners has petitioned the Charles County Circuit Court to deny a request to release the unredacted minutes of two closed board sessions that are at the heart of the legal battle to determine whether District 2 Commissioner Thomasina Coates (D) is allowed to vote on the employment contract of the county administrator.

The board, which is a defendant in the case along with Coates, argues that under Maryland’s Public Information Act, it is legally obligated to keep the minutes under seal — that is, not disclosed to the public — because they contain “privileged and confidential” information about personnel matters.

The board’s response comes as the spotlight turns back to the circuit court following the Appellate Court of Maryland’s denial of Coates’ request to rescind the temporary restraining order barring her from taking any action related to Belton, as TLR was the first to report:

Why are the Closed Sessions Important?

What happened — and what didn’t happen — during the two closed sessions is at the center of the legal debate propelling Stewart et al. v Commissioners.

To briefly recap: during the June 9, 2020, closed session of the Board of County Commissioners, the board voted 4-1 to enact an administrative ruling against Commissioner Coates as a result of an investigation by outside counsel that found she had discriminated against and harassed county administrator Belton, and warned that her actions had left the county vulnerable to (unspecified) legal action. The administrative ruling, called a prompt remedial action (“the PRA”), enjoins Coates from interacting with Belton directly or participating in any votes related to his county employment contract for as long as Belton is a county employee and/or Coates is a county commissioner.

During the closed session, the commissioners also voted — again, 4-1 — to approve revising the Commissioner’s Rules of Procedures to require the commissioners to abide by the same anti-harassment and anti-bullying policies already in place in the county’s human resources guidelines.

While comparatively fewer details have been publicly revealed about what happened in the December 13, 2022, closed session, a recently filed affidavit by Coates revealed for the first time that the purpose of the meeting was explicitly to vote to fire Belton and County Attorney Wes Adams for as-yet-undisclosed reasons. After Coates, Commissioners’ President Reuben B. Collins II (D), and newly elected Commissioners’ Vice President Ralph E. Patterson (D) voted to fire Belton, Adams declared the vote void. TLR understands from multiple sources with knowledge of the events that Adams told the commissioners that, because of the restrictions placed on Coates by the PRA, any vote on Belton’s employment in which Coates participated was automatically nullified.

Ultimately, the commissioners voted unanimously to allow Stewart and Bowling to seek a ruling, called a declaratory judgment, from the circuit court on whether Coates could be allowed to participate in votes or other actions related to Belton’s employment.

Both Sides Seek Public Release of Minutes

Unusually, the plaintiffs — District 3 Commissioner Amanda M. Stewart (D) and District 1 Commissioner Gilbert Bowling III (D) — have joined defendant Coates in requesting the court unseal the unredacted minutes, each side arguing there is a compelling public interest in allowing them to be released. *

Last month, Judge Leo E. Green, Jr. ordered the board to provide unredacted copies of both sets of minutes to all parties in the case and to officers of the court, but designated them as “Attorneys’ Eyes Only” and stipulated that they not be released to the public. The attorneys for Coates argue that the unredacted minutes should be unsealed because they “contain information of significant interest to the public” and that the First Amendment “compels” their unsealing “given the public nature of the parties’ dispute about the PRA and the December 13, 2022, vote to terminate” Belton. Furthermore, they argue,

“Even if it could be shown that sealing and designating the fully unredacted Minutes as Attorneys’ Eyes Only serve a compelling governmental interest, the Minutes would still have to be de-designated [that is, lifting the “Attorneys’ Eyes Only” restriction] because there is no plausible argument that the significant redactions to the Minutes are narrowly tailored, i.e., no greater than they need to be to serve a compelling governmental interest.”

In his March 10 filing opposing the motion to publicly release the minutes, the attorney for the board** argued that the minutes “are confidential and restricted from public view by operation of law.” While the state’s Open Meetings Act favors public disclosure of meeting records, it also defers to other laws — such as the Maryland Public Information Act — that may impose restrictions or conditions on their release. Furthermore,

“The Court has already determined that the parties’ interests are adequately served by the sharing of the records in unredacted form for ‘Attorney’s [sic] Eyes Only.’ Further disclosure serves no compelling interest in terms of aiding the timeliness of the prosecution of the litigation. Likewise, no party will be unduly prejudiced should the records remain sealed.”

In response to the “significant public interest” argument, the board argues that,

“. . . the general nature of the controversy which is the genesis of the instant matter is already in the public sphere. Disclosure of the specific details included in the sealed documents will render no additional benefit to the public but could negatively impact the confidentiality interests of the personnel identified in the records.”

Is There a “Compelling Governmental Interest” in Keeping the Unredacted Minutes Sealed?

In their petition to release the unredacted minutes, Coates’ legal team cited case law that says that the right of public access to court proceedings and records can only be denied if there is a “compelling governmental interest . . . narrowly tailored to serve that interest” that would outweigh the public’s right to know. They argue that the board can’t demonstrate a narrowly tailored compelling interest in this case because:

  • “. . . a majority of commissioners on the Board consent to the requested unsealing and de-designation of the fully unredacted Minutes” and
  • “. . . there is no plausible argument that the significant redactions to the Minutes are narrowly tailored, i.e., no greater than they need to be to serve a compelling governmental interest.”

In their response, the board’s attorney notes that “[t]he sealed records are sealed in order that the Board as custodian remains in compliance with the law — which, by any reasonable interpretation amounts to a compelling governmental interest.” Because of that, he argues, the burden of proof shifts to Coates to demonstrate why the unsealed minutes should be publicly released — and “Coates’ bald statement that it would serve the public interest simply does not meet that burden.”

The board’s opposition memorandum ends on a cautionary, if somewhat ambiguous, note:

“Additionally, the unwarranted disclosure of these records which are made confidential by law carries the attendant risk that it will set a precedent with negative ramifications not only for this litigation, but for unforeseen circumstances that are entirely likely to arise in the future.”

What Happens Next?

The litigants having made their arguments for and against publicly releasing the unredacted minutes, it’s now up to Judge Green to decide. Given that he has already ruled to provide the unredacted minutes to the litigants and court officers, TLR believes it’s unlikely that he will order them released to the wider public.

Throughout the Jan. 24 hearing, Judge Green — a former city councilman — explicitly stated his intention not to second-guess or usurp the board’s executive and legislative prerogatives in his rulings. Ordering the board to publicly release the unredacted minutes could be interpreted as an act of judicial overreach that disregards the expectations of elected officials to deliberate sensitive issues in camera.

To read TLR’s complete coverage of the circuit court and appellate cases, click here or select “Stewart et al. v Commissioners” from the “Categories” menu at top right.

Download the Court Documents Discussed in This Post

1: “Plaintiff Commissioners’ Motion to Unseal Defendant Coates’s Memorandum in Support of Motion to Dismiss and Exhibits to Plaintiffs’ Complaint,” Jan. 20, 2023
2: “Defendant Commissioner Thomasina O. Coates’ Motion to Unseal and De-Designate the Fully Unredacted Minutes of the June 9, 2020, and December 13, 2022, Closed Sessions of the Board,” March 2, 2023
3: “Defendant Charles County Board of County Commissioners’ Opposition to Defendant Commissioner Thomasina O. Coates’ Motion to Unseal and De-Designate the Fully Unredacted Minutes of the June 9, 2020 and December 13, 2022 Closed Sessions of the Board,” March 10, 2023

* The plaintiffs submitted the minutes of the June 9, 2020 closed board session under seal in their original complaint last December, along with the sealed report of the investigation by outside counsel into charges of discrimination that County Administrator Mark Belton and Coates filed against each other. In January, the plaintiff’s counsel asked the judge to lift the seal on both of those documents. To date, Judge Green has not explicitly ruled on that motion, though his subsequent order to make the unsealed minutes available to the litigants and court officers could be interpreted as his response to it. (go back)

** The nomenclature used to designate the Board of County Commissioners in this lawsuit can be confusing. In their original complaint, the plaintiffs named as the defendants each of the other three commissioners (Collins, Patterson, and Coates) individually “in [their] official capacity” as well as the Board of County Commissioners as an organizational entity, in its capacity as “the governing authority for Charles County, Maryland” with “the power to sue and be sued.” Judge Green subsequently dismissed Collins and Patterson from the case, leaving Coates and the board as the sole defendants. In its own filings, the board identifies itself as “a body corporate and municipal entity.” (go back)