If you subscribed to a Montgomery County Council member’s newsletter or signed up to receive information through the county’s Paperless Airplane online information service, your email address has been provided to a man working to start a local voters’ information group.
Robert Lipman, a Westbard area resident who founded the MoCo Voters group after lobbying against a county land use plan for the Bethesda neighborhood, received digital spreadsheet files listing more than 219,000 email addresses after he filed Maryland Public Information Act requests with the county seeking newsletter subscribers.
According to Lipman’s requests provided to Bethesda Beat by the county, Lipman requested Jan. 29 the email addresses of subscribers to newsletters maintained by council members in electronic files “that can be readily used to send in a single distribution in the same manner” as the newsletters.
On March 6, a legislative attorney for the council provided Lipman with about 92,000 email addresses from lists maintained by council members Roger Berliner, Marc Elrich, Nancy Floreen, Sidney Katz, George Leventhal, Nancy Navarro and Hans Riemer. The remaining two council members—Tom Hucker and Craig Rice—do not maintain their own newsletter email lists, according to legislative attorney Amanda Mihill.
On Feb. 1, Lipman also requested the county provide email addresses of Paperless Airplane subscribers. On Feb. 21, county spokesman Patrick Lacefield replied to the request by providing 127,726 email addresses.
County Council members and Lacefield said they had to comply with the request because of Maryland’s public information law.
“If someone writes into the County Council or the county executive, that’s a matter of public record,” Lacefield said. “This is a public record.”
County Council President Roger Berliner said Monday it’s “unfortunate” the county’s legal advisers said council members must comply with Lipman’s request.
“I don’t think the public is well served by this,” Berliner said. “Now anybody could have access to these lists. I don’t think that facilitates communication with government officials that now suddenly marketers could have access to [the lists], anybody could have access to [the lists]. So I think it is not a good result for the public.”
“We were informed of the law, we had to make them public,” Floreen said Monday, adding that she was concerned about how the email addresses may be used. “Are these going to be sold? Are they going to be used for ways they shouldn’t be used for? This was just a way for us to communicate with folks.”
Lipman, a strong opponent of the county’s plan to add more development potential to the Westbard neighborhood, said he requested the lists to provide potential voters in the county with more information about elections and reduce what he believes is the influence of special-interest money in county elections.
“For too long, candidates have relied too heavily on campaign contributions from developer-related and other special interests,” Lipman wrote in an email. “This has not worked well and in 2017 [sic] voters approved a term limits ballot measure by over 69%. The email lists were sought to facilitate communications to voters about the 2018 elections with a view toward enhancing voter engagement and reducing the influence of special interests on those elections.”
Complicating the issue of the release of the addresses is the county’s open data law. It requires the county to post on its open data website public information requests and its responses to them. On Monday, the response to Lipman’s request for the email address list of the council’s newsletter subscribers was posted on the website and included the spreadsheet files with the more than 90,000 email addresses. However, the file was no longer posted Tuesday morning, after Bethesda Beat had contacted county officials about the release of the addresses. The Paperless Airplane list request was not on the data website when Bethesda Beat checked Monday.
Council member Hans Riemer said the list was removed from the website later on Monday because he is planning to introduce an amendment to county law as soon as possible that would no longer require the county to post email distribution lists on the website.
“Maryland law requires us to turn them over,” Riemer said Tuesday. “That doesn’t mean we have to share them with the whole world.”
Riemer said the council should push for a change in state law to protect the email addresses of residents who sign up for newsletters or contact the county about issues.
“I think the Maryland Public Information Act needs to be revised to protect the ability of local governments to share information with their residents through newsletters without being taken advantage of by local political actors,” Riemer said.
Lipman pointed out that he is not the first person to request email address lists maintained by a county or county officials.
The Carroll County Times was joined by The Washington Post, The Baltimore Sun and WMAR-TV in a 2013 lawsuit that sought a list of email addresses maintained by the Carroll County Board of Commissioners.
In 2014, a circuit court judge ordered the board to comply with the request from the news organizations and provide the email addresses, saying the addresses were public information and the board’s attorneys failed to prove that releasing them “would cause substantial injury to the public interest.”
The board had argued that releasing the addresses would create a “chilling effect” on its communications with residents.
An attorney for the news organizations told the Carroll County Times after the ruling that “It is essential, especially in the internet era that we do everything we can to make sure the public receives the maximum information.”
Lipman also filed five other public information requests—including four on behalf of “SaveWestbard, an advocacy group that aims to limit development in Westbard— and he received responses from the county in August and October 2016, according to the county’s public information request database. Those requests ranged from asking for electronic documents that included the words “Equity One,” “Westbard,” and “Westwood” to documents containing the words “term limits.”
Lipman previously testified during public hearings about the Westbard Sector Plan in opposition of developer Equity One’s plans to redevelop the area around Westwood Shopping Center. During one hearing, he said an Equity One official had bought its way into redeveloping the area. Lipman even held up a Monopoly game board during the testimony and finished by saying, “This is Monopoly at its worst.”
The “about” page on the MoCo Voters website notes, “We want a county government that cares about us. We don’t want a county government run by politicians who pretend to listen to average members of the community—but who don’t really listen to us, because these politicians are too busy listening to developer-related special interests who make substantial campaign contributions.”
Editor’s Note: Clarification – an earlier version of this story noted Riemer said the council “plans to” push for a state law change, but he clarified that he believes the council “should” push for a state law change. It has been fixed.