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Washington County school system, candidate at odds over tape of meeting

Lowery says she's not giving back tape of Dec. 11 public meeting

Lowery says she's not giving back tape of Dec. 11 public meeting

June 20, 2008|By ERIN CUNNINGHAM and ANDREW SCHOTZ

WASHINGTON COUNTY -- A Washington County Board of Education candidate said she's not giving back a tape of a controversial school board meeting unless a judge tells her she has to.

Margaret Lowery said last week she was angry after receiving a letter in February from a Washington County Public Schools official requesting she return the tape she received one week earlier.

The tape was of the school board's Dec. 11 public business meeting. During that meeting, board member Bernadette M. Wagner made statements about school board candidate and former board member Jacqueline B. Fischer that prompted Fischer to threaten legal action.

Wagner, who isn't running for re-election, asked during the meeting for a "legal opinion" on whether a candidate - referring to Fischer - could run for the board while she had a contract with the school system.

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Fischer later resigned from her position as a proofreader for the school system.

Fischer said Tuesday that a lawsuit against Wagner now is unlikely.

The tape

Lowery said she asked for a tape of the Dec. 11 meeting because she thought the board had discussed community service hours.

She said she made her request in writing in January and received the tape in February.

She started watching the tape one night, but never got to the discussion she was looking for.

"One hour into it, I was sound asleep," Lowery said.

A week later, Will Kauffman, the school system's acting public information director, left her a few messages that she had to return the tape. Lowery said he was "very distraught" and wanted to come to her house to pick up the tape.

Lowery said she told Kauffman he would have to make a written request, like she had to.

In a March 12 letter marked "personal and confidential," Kauffman said he inadvertently gave Lowery the tape without alerting Fischer's attorney, so he wanted the tape back.

"Given the concerns that were expressed, the attorney for the candidate was informed that if an individual requested a copy of the videotape of the December 11th business meeting that he would be provided notice prior to the release of the tape," Kauffman wrote in the letter. "This notice would have provided the candidate with an opportunity, if the candidate was inclined to do so, to petition the court to object to the release of the portion of the December 11th tape in question."

When reached for comment Tuesday, Kauffman referred questions to Stan Schaub, acting deputy superintendent for Systemwide Improvement, Efficiency and Accountability.

Schaub referred questions to Chief Legal Counsel Anthony Trotta, who said, "The only comment I can offer is given the potential for litigation, we are not at liberty to offer comments."

The Herald-Mail obtained a copy of Kauffman's letter last week. Lowery said she doesn't know who provided it to the newspaper.

She said she ignored Kauffman's request because she felt she legally had obtained the tape.

At the end of April, Fischer called Lowery and urged her to return the tape, or else she would be "involved" in Fischer's lawsuit, Lowery said.

"I don't like threats and I considered her phone call to me a threat," Lowery said.

Fischer said Tuesday she asked Lowery to return the tape. Fischer told Lowery that if there is legal action, anyone who viewed the tape could be involved in the lawsuit.

"She told me she was going to return it," Fischer said of Lowery. "The best thing to do would be to return it ... to get it out of her hands."

Fischer said she assumed Lowery had returned the tape.

"I just let it drop because I took her at her word," Fischer said. "Should anything come out of it, she's implicating herself, and that's her decision."

Lowery said someone is keeping the tape in a safe for her and she won't give it back "until I get a letter from a judge."

The record

While a written record of the Dec. 11 business meeting is available to the public, Maryland Assistant Attorney General William Varga said it's unclear if not disclosing the tape violates the Maryland Open Meetings Act.

Written minutes of the meeting only say that Wagner made comments about a school board candidate and referred to the board's policy regarding qualifications of candidacy.

Varga said a tape of a public meeting shouldn't be withheld.

"It would be available under the Public Information Act for you to view or obtain a copy, provided there was nothing that was confidential in them," he said. "If it's a recording of a public meeting, it would be hard to think anything would be confidential."

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