Watchdog leader seeks solo review of reports

Common Cause director says he was improperly monitored at Annapolis city clerk's office

July 03, 2005|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,SUN STAFF

The director of a government watchdog group said he plans to return this week to review campaign finance reports at the Annapolis city clerk's office, where he says staff improperly monitored him as he looked at the documents.

James Browning, the executive director of Common Cause Maryland, said staff told him Thursday that he could not view files listing campaign contributions for Mayor Ellen O. Moyer without someone sitting next to him.

"We're going back on Tuesday to resume the search," Browning said. "If we're denied access to the records or if they insist on monitoring our every move, then we will file a complaint."

City officials said no one wanted to prevent his access to the files, but that staff members are responsible for maintaining their integrity.

"We have to make sure ... nothing is removed from the files," said city spokeswoman Jan Hardesty. She said her understanding was that Browning did not identify himself before retrieving some files Thursday.

"Common courtesy and basic office security suggests that they identify themselves upon entering the office, and [ask] for assistance about reviewing the files," Hardesty wrote in an e-mail to Moyer, who filed for re-election last week.

According to the Maryland Public Information Act Manual, published by the state attorney general's office, people generally do not need to justify or otherwise explain a request to inspect records, nor can anyone holding records require that people say who they are or why they want the records.

Browning had inspected records Wednesday at the clerk's office on Main Street. But when he returned the next day, different staffers stopped him as he went directly to the filing cabinets to obtain materials.

"There's always been a policy that when people came up ... our staff needs to get the materials they're looking for and need to reshelve them," Hardesty said.

City Clerk Deborah Heinbuch was not available for comment Friday.

Browning said that staffers monitoring people as they viewed files would have a chilling effect, discouraging the public from making the attempt. "Our experience has been that all too often the public is seen as the enemy," he said.

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