Although there haven’t been any recent dramatic revelations or plot twists in the legal cases related to the authority of District 2 Commissioner Thomasina Coates (D) to vote on the employment contract of the county administrator, the attorneys for all parties have been keeping busy. Since TLR’s last story on the unsealing of the Sargeant report, there have been six motions filed and two orders issued in the appellate court and two scheduling hearings ordered in the circuit court case. Furthermore, TLR understands that the mediation process between the various parties — in which Commissioner Coates is not participating — has been continuing, though non-disclosure agreements bar the participants from sharing any details publicly.
With a couple of milestones looming, now is a good time to briefly recap where the two cases stand and what could be coming next.
Recent Developments in the Circuit Court Case
Following the decision by Coates’ legal team to appeal the circuit court’s temporary restraining order and the decision to attempt resolution through mediation, the circuit court case has been relatively quiet.
The most interesting recent development is the issuance of an order on Thursday calling for the attorneys in the case to participate in a conference on Tuesday, May 9 — the day after the second mediation session is scheduled to take place. Presumably, the conference is intended as an opportunity for the litigants to brief Judge Leo E. Green on the outcomes of the mediation. If any critical issues remain unresolved, then the judge will likely schedule an evidentiary hearing, and presumably also allow Coates’ attorneys to resume filing discovery requests seeking key documents, emails, and depositions from the county.
Should the circuit court case proceed to an evidentiary hearing to decide the overarching legal question of whether Coates can participate in vote to fire County Administrator Mark Belton despite the administrative sanction placed on her in 2020 that prevents her from doing so, TLR will provide readers with a primer on the arguments for and against.
Recent Developments in the Appellate Court Case
As TLR recently reported on its Facebook page — which readers are encouraged to follow for interim updates — Coates’ legal team has officially started the countdown timer on their appeal to the Appellate Court of Maryland:
TLR understands that the appellants may file their brief as soon as next week, which would give the other parties — Commissioners Commissioner Amanda M. Stewart (D, District 3) and Gilbert Bowling III (D, District 1) and the Board of County Commissioners as an organization — until the end of May or beginning of June to file their responses. When Coates’ attorneys file their brief, we will find out whether they are seeking an oral argument, or whether they will ask the court to rule on the documents submitted in all the parties’ briefs.*
As TLR also reported, the circuit court’s temporary restraining order will remain in place for the duration of the proceedings:
In denying the request to lift the TRO, the appellate court also denied the accompanying request to publicly release the unredacted minutes of the two closed sessions of the Board of County Commissioners at the heart of the case. Although the court did not elaborate on the reason(s) for denying the request to unseal the minutes — which the attorneys for Stewart and Bowling also sought — it’s likely that the appellate judges agreed with the Board’s counsel’s argument that there was a “compelling governmental interest” in preventing the unredacted minutes from being shared with the public. An earlier circuit court ruling allowed the attorneys involved in the case to have access to the unredacted minutes.
Earlier this week, the Board of County Commissioners voted to authorize increasing the County Attorney’s Office general fund budget to $875,000 to cover the accrued and anticipated attorney’s fees in the ongoing litigation.** Given the possibility of an evidentiary hearing in the circuit court and oral arguments in the appellate court, that looks like a prudent decision.
The good news for Charles County residents is that both cases are now moving toward their endgames. The less-good news is that, until the hearings and arguments are scheduled on the court dockets, there’s no telling when those will be.
Download the Court Documents Discussed in This Post
1: Scheduling Order (Appellate Court of Maryland), April 18, 2023
2: Order [Denying the Emergency Motion to Suspend the Temporary Restraining Order and Unseal Minutes of Closed Sessions] (Appellate Court of Maryland), April 26, 2023
3: Notice of Scheduling Conference (Charles County Circuit Court), April 27, 2023
** The money for the attorneys’ fees for all the parties in the circuit court case is being transferred from the county’s unassigned general fund balance. Any transferred funds that remain unspent by the end of the lawsuit will revert back to the general fund. It is not publicly known how much all the parties have billed the county up to this point, or whether the attorneys’ fees for the appeal will also be reimbursed by the county. (go back)