Column: In Judge’s Own Words

Column: In Judge’s Own Words

Circuit Court Judge Robert A. Greenberg’s ruling, entered April 23, 2013 in the Circuit Court of Montgomery County:

The matter is before the court on requests for attorneys’ fees filed by the Petitioners, Nicholas Maravell, et al. and Curtis Uhre, et al. against Respondent Montgomery County Board of Education. The court has reviewed the extensive submissions of the parties, and is well aware of the history of the case. For that reason, it declines to hold a hearing in the matter.

By letter to the Board dated Feb. 19, 2012, Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett surrendered the lease to the Brickyard Road School Site, which had been given by virtue of a resolution passed on March 8, 2011. The surrender was accepted by the Board on the day it was received. As a result, this court did not issue its final ruling in the case, and the Petition for Judicial Review and Cross Petition for Judicial Review were dismissed, with prejudice, on Feb. 27, because the issues presented therein were moot.

A review of the record suggests that Petitioner Maravell and his family have been good stewards of the school board land on which their organic farm is located. They have worked diligently to perpetuate organic farming in the county for several decades. While it appears that legal notice of the Board’s actions was properly provided to county residents, it is this court’s opinion that Petitioner Maravell was treated quite shabbily by those responsible for passing the resolution at issue, as even several Board of Education members acknowledged at the time the lease resolution was passed.

Petitioner Maravell’s current dismay can well be appreciated: after many months of litigation, and on the cusp of a final decision by the court, the county suddenly decided that the lease — initially claimed to be so beneficial that it had to be rammed through the Board of Education before a more thorough and thoughtful public discussion could take place — was not quite so vital to the county and its soccer-playing youth.

Why county officials suddenly changed their minds is unknown to the court. Petitioner Maravell’s quest to remain on the farm became a cause celebre, and even Governor O’Malley publicly weighed in on the issue. Perhaps the decision to abandon the lease was a matter of political expediency, or maybe county officials read the judicial tea leaves and believed the county would ultimately not prevail before the court. It matters not; the county’s actions — and the Board’s — resulted in an enormous waste of private, county and state resources. Whether the Board’s actions when it met in closed session — conceded by its attorneys to be in violation of the Open Meetings Act — were lawful or not, the entire episode left the oft-stated and under-exercised notion of government ‘transparency’ with a black eye. To suggest, however, that Petitioners are ipso facto entitled to attorneys’ fees under Md. Code Ann., State Government 10-501, et seq., is another matter entirely.

The Board raises valid arguments regarding notice and waiver of the right to attorneys’ fees which are of concern, but the court does not need to reach those issues, nor the others set out in the Board’s response.

At the end of the day, Petitioner Maravell has no viable legal claim to continued occupancy of this tract. This has been emphasized by the court at every hearing held in this case. His interest in pursuing this litigation was for the purpose of renewing or reinvigorating his expired lease, or gaining negotiating position to do so. In that way, he could continue to farm the school board’s land at substantially below-market rental, in a county where farmland is dwindling. Petitioner Uhre’s interest piggybacks Maravell’s, and it doesn’t take a jaundiced observer to deduce that, perhaps understandably, the Petitioners had no desire to see an influx of soccer players and parents regularly invade their affluent Potomac neighborhood.

It would be wonderful to continue to have an organic farm in the heart of Potomac, and maybe that will come to pass. For now, however, this tract of land belongs to the Board of Education. It is likely that some day, in the not-too-distant future, a middle school will sit on this site. There will be automobiles and school buses, noisy adolescents, outdoor tennis and basketball courts, and lots of traffic.

Petitioners should not be awarded attorneys’ fees, which will ultimately be paid by the taxpayers of this county, for pursuing claims that were clearly personal to them and their immediate neighbors. That petitioners incidentally asserted Open Meetings Act claims in their quest to retain this property is not, in the court’s view, sufficient reason to award them counsel fees. Even assuming that the Open Meetings Act was substantively (and not merely technically) violated (a finding that this court has not made), the court is satisfied from its review of the record that the diversion of public funds to the Petitioners to pay their attorneys is not reasonable under the circumstances.

Accordingly, it is this 19th day of April, 2012, by the Circuit Court for Montgomery County, Maryland ordered, that Petitioners’ request for attorneys’ fees are denied.