Thursday, Feb. 7, 2008

Thurmont stands by policy of charging for attorney comments

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Thurmont is defending its policy of charging members of the press and the public for its attorney’s time, though elected officials will try to answer questions themselves first.

The town’s attorney, N. Lynn Board of the Frederick firm Board and Borden, charges $150 per hour for her work on town business.

Thurmont commissioners in November enacted a policy of directing Board to charge the press and public, rather than the town, for her time spent answering Thurmont-related questions.

The town provided The Gazette invoices from Board to Thurmont for May 1 through Oct. 30, 2007 — the period that includes a multimillion-dollar civil trial in which Thurmont was the defendant, and a heated annexation debate.

The documents show that the town paid Board $26,428.50 for the six-month period for 176 hours and 11 minutes of work. During that time, Board spent less than one hour responding to questions from The Frederick News-Post or Katherine Heerbrandt, and charged the town $125 for the work.

Thurmont has $60,500 budgeted for legal services in fiscal 2008. Heerbrandt is a columnist for The News-Post, and a former reporter for The Gazette. Heerbrandt’s columns — informed by Board’s research — angered commissioners, Mayor Martin A. Burns has said, prompting a closed-session discussion in the fall that led to the new policy, which Burns announced to the public on Nov. 6. At a town meeting on Jan. 15, five days after a story ran in The Gazette about the town’s decision, Burns defended the policy while responding to a resident’s question.

‘‘We had a columnist who — I was attributed as saying her name, but I just said what somebody else told me; I wasn’t accusing her, but I’m the head of this thing, so ... that’s me — And [commissioners] saw it again that, e-mail after e-mail to our attorney, back and forth, back and forth, and we get an invoice. It was brought up in a meeting; they didn’t like it. I supported the decision, even though I had some concerns about it. But I supported and voted for it, too, because I’m trying to save you money.”

Burns also said that questions about town business should be directed to William H. Blakeslee, Thurmont’s chief administrative officer. Blakeslee would pass along the question to commissioners, who would then decide whether to answer it themselves, have Blakeslee answer it, or to defer it to Board. He added that Board has agreed not to charge the town, the press or the public to respond to questions that take ‘‘her two seconds to answer.”

‘‘It’s all about trying to control costs, not about trying to keep people from information,” Burns said.