Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Planners subpoena activist in case over missing road

Agency wants him to divulge comments to news agency

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Activist Steven J. Kanstoroom has refused to hand over electronic mail and other communications between himself and news reporters demanded in a subpoena from the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission.

The commission’s lawyers deposed Kanstoroom, of Ashton, Monday about how he has helped some Sandy Spring property owners frustrated by the agency’s refusal to recognize a road easement that would allow them to build on their property.

The commission’s subpoena sought all records of Kanstoroom’s communications with The Gazette and other print and broadcast news organizations about disputes he and the landlocked property owners have with the commission.

The order was issued in connection with a lawsuit one of the property owners, a Sandy Spring couple, filed against a neighbor, the commission and others in an effort to regain access to a ‘‘Farm Road” that disappeared from the planning agency’s records through a series of development approvals.

Maryland’s ‘‘shield law” prohibits the issuance of subpoenas to reporters or journalists to compel disclosure of information, notes, associated records and data or news sources.

Asked if the subpoena of Kanstoroom’s communications with reporters is an attempt to evade the shield law, planning board spokeswoman Valerie Berton said: ‘‘We don’t see it that way.”

Berton said, ‘‘Everything [Kanstoroom] is saying about this case could be relevant.

A Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association official denounced the tactic.

‘‘It sounds like a variation on SLAPP lawsuits used to intimidate citizen activists,” said John J. Murphy, executive director of the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association and former executive editor of The Gazette. SLAPP stands for strategic lawsuit against public participation.

‘‘The Planning Board seems to be abusing their subpoena power to shut people up,” Murphy continued, adding that such action is inappropriate for a public agency, which the Planning Board is.

Jim Grossfeld, a spokesman for the 3,000 member Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild and member of its executive board, said everyone should be concerned about such an attempt to go around the shield law.

‘‘The privacy of communications between journalists and their sources is sacrosanct,” Grossfeld wrote in an email to The Gazette. ‘‘This is a clear assault on the rights of reporters. All of us have a stake in challenging it.”David B. Lieb, a lawyer for the planning agency, said seeking such information from Kanstoroom is part of doing a responsible job of defending the case, ‘‘not trying to chill any public involvement.”

During Kanstoroom’s deposition Monday, the planning agency’s lawyers asked questions about aggrieved landowners who are in the same predicament as the plaintiffs (Gregg D. and Michelle Bacon) but who are not suing the agency, Kanstoroom said.

They also asked who paid for a bus that took protesters to some public officials’ homes on Martin Luther King Day to urge them to intervene for the property owners, many of whom inherited the land from ancestors who were freed slaves.

Kanstoroom’s lawyer has cited attorney-client privilege, attorney work-product privilege and investigatory privilege as reasons to limit his response.

Attorney work-product privilege protects materials a lawyer has prepared that might reveal case strategy, while investigatory privilege protects against the release of information that might jeopardize investigations by law enforcement.

Kanstoroom said he wouldn’t be able to comment on whether such an investigation was under way, but he denounced the Planning Agency’s action.

‘‘If they spent a tiny fraction of this energy doing the right thing, they wouldn’t be spending hundreds of thousands of dollars of taxpayers’ money doing the wrong thing,” Kanstoroom said.

In its subpoena, the Planning Agency is also demanding all records and communications between Kanstoroom and the county’s Inspector General Thomas J. Dagley about the disputes.

Dagley has not responded yet to a request for comment left with his staff.

Kanstoroom has had his own arguments with the commission over tree cutting on a property where he holds a forest conservation easement.

Since last year, Kanstoroom has been a volunteer advocate for Sandy Spring landowners who need the planning agency to issue them addresses. Without addresses, they cannot build.

The agency says it cannot issue addresses because road access the landowners claimed does not exist. A neighbor, named as a defendant in the lawsuit, placed a chain across an entrance to the road in 2006.

Kanstoroom, a retired pattern recognition and fraud detection expert, researched and helped the Sandy Spring landowners build their case.

He said he told the commission’s lawyers that they can do nothing to stop him ‘‘from taking every lawful action I can to help these people.”

Last month he entered the race for the County Council’s District 4 seat, left vacant by the Feb. 1 death of Marilyn J. Praisner. He is a Democrat.

The County Council appoints both the inspector general and planning commissioners and oversees their budgets, but the council’s lawyer Michael Faden said it would be inappropriate for him to comment about the appropriateness of subpoenas the planning board has issued to support its position in the lawsuit.