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Attorney says club grant not public info

March 31, 2003|by TARA REILLY

tarar@herald-mail.com

Washington County Attorney Richard Douglas has refused a request from a Hagerstown nonprofit organization to release information on how another local nonprofit group is spending state grant money.

Andy Smith, president of Brothers United Who Dare to Care, requested the information from Douglas on Feb. 14. Smith asked for the financial records - including the grant application - for a high-school age program offered by the Boys & Girls Clubs of Washington County.

The Boys & Girls Clubs in December received a $75,000 state grant to pay for the program. The grant was awarded by the Washington County Community Partnership, which received the money from the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention.

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Smith said in a letter to Douglas that Brothers United was concerned that only a portion of the grant would go to the program and the rest would be placed in the Boys & Girls Clubs' budget.

Douglas denied Smith's request for the financial documents on Feb. 20, saying they contain trade secrets and confidential commercial and financial information.

Douglas said last week the documents might contain details of the way the Boys & Girls Clubs teach the program, which is considered a trade secret and is protected from disclosure under Maryland law. He also said disclosing the financial records could reveal competitive grant information.

"I don't think it's any of his business," Douglas said. "They applied to get the grant. They went through all the hoops."

Douglas said the Boys & Girls Clubs is a nonprofit private organization and that Maryland's open records law doesn't apply the same way it would to a public body.

"Just because you get a grant doesn't mean you have to open your books to anyone who walks in off the street," Douglas said.

Bob McDonald, chief of opinions and advice in the Maryland Attorney General's Office, said in response to an inquiry from The Herald-Mail that the refusal to disclose the information Smith requested sounded "unusual" because it involves state money. He declined to comment further, but said Smith could challenge the Douglas ruling in court.

At least two County Commissioners, Vice President William J. Wivell and John C. Munson, said they thought a request for a breakdown of how the grant is being spent would be public information.

Commissioner James F. Kercheval said Friday he did not know the details of the matter and would not comment on "who's right and who's wrong."

Commissioners President Gregory I. Snook and Commissioners Doris J. Nipps could not be reached for comment Friday.

County Administrator Rodney Shoop said Friday he wasn't aware of the situation but he would look into it.

Smith said last week he believes the public has the right to know how tax dollars are being spent. He said he was denied the information by the Washington County Community Partnership and the Boys & Girls Clubs.

Jim Deaner, executive director of the Boys & Girls Clubs, said his organization opposes releasing the program's grant application because organizations must compete for grants.

Stephanie Stone, executive director of Washington County Community Partnership, said she didn't think disclosing the financial records of the program was a decision she could make and referred Smith to Douglas.

Stone and Deaner both said the Boys & Girls Clubs is held accountable for the spending of the $75,000 grant through reviews conducted by the Washington County Community Partnership.

"It's tracked," Deaner said.

Deaner said all of the grant money will be spent on the program.

Smith said he would still like to see more details on how the grant is being spent.

"I just want everybody to be open and fair," Smith said. "That's what my hope is."

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