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UPDATED: Montgomery judge dismisses challenge to ambulance fee campaign

Michael Laris

Updated, 4:57 p.m.: Montgomery Circuit Court Judge Robert A. Greenberg dismissed a lawsuit Monday seeking to block county campaigning for an ambulance fee.

Greenberg did not address the question of whether the county's campaign activities in recent days and weeks have been legal.

Instead, Greenberg ruled that volunteer firefighters filed their suit too late, saying there is a 10-day statute of limitations for voters to challenge such disputed election activities after they learn about them. In this case, that would mean filing suit no later than Oct. 28, Greenberg ruled. The volunteers filed Oct. 29.

John T. Bentivoglio, an attorney for volunteer fire and rescue personnel who oppose the fee, said the county had long argued that its activities were educational. But in Monday's hearing, Bentivoglio said, the county characterized their earlier activities as political advocacy so the statute of limitations would kick in.

"Their argument is like the child who kills his parents and pleads for mercy because he's an orphan," Bentivoglio said.

Acting County Attorney Marc Hansen said the ruling means the county can proceed with education and advocacy efforts as planned going into Tuesday's vote. The county's activities have been legal, Hansen argued.

"The judge clearly left the field open for the county to continue to be a participant in the debate," Hansen said.

Original post: A Montgomery County judge hearing an emergency challenge to government efforts to campaign for an ambulance fee said Monday that a county-produced campaign flier is intended to intimidate voters.

The government flier says blocking the fee could result in: "Longer Response Times for Ambulances" and "Increased Risk for Our Families and Property," among other things.

"This is not an attempt to do anything other than, in some ways, frankly, intimidate people and get them to vote for the ambulance fee," Montgomery Circuit Court Judge Robert A. Greenberg said.

Acting County Attorney Marc Hansen said after the hearing that the flier was educational, but also served to advocate for the fee.

"You persuade by educating, by informing," Hansen said. "When you say, 'The polar ice caps are melting,' it's information, also intimidating information, sobering information."

The judge also had tough questions for an attorney representing an association of volunteer firefighters that opposes the fee and brought the emergency suit. For instance, Greenberg questioned whether the group met a statutory deadline for filing such a challenge, and he rejected some attempts to include additional evidence.

The Montgomery County Volunteer Fire-Rescue Association sued to block the county from using ambulances and uniformed county workers and taking other actions to campaign for the fee Monday and at polling places Tuesday.

John T. Bentivoglio, the attorney for the volunteer association, said county policy and state law prevent Montgomery's government from enlisting what he warned could be hundreds of employees to campaign for one side in a referendum.

Greenberg said he would issue a ruling Monday afternoon.

This post has been updated since it was first published.

By Michael Laris  | November 1, 2010; 4:57 PM ET
Categories:  2010 Elections, Michael Laris, Montgomery County  | Tags:  montgomery ambulance fee  
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Acting County Attorney Hansen says:
"When you say, 'The polar ice caps are melting,' it's information, also intimidating information, sobering information."

Well, Mr. Hansen, looking at my sample ballot, I don't see that issue listed.

The use of taxpayer funds to campaign and engage in electioneering as opposed to merely inform is just plain wrong, regardless of one's opinion of Question A.

You think it's alright to intimidate the public re Question A? Hell, why doesn't the County just use its public soapbox to tell all of us how to vote the rest of our ballots as well? County Exec? County Council? Board of Ed? State Constitutional Questions? It really makes no difference if one takes your flawed rationale to its logical conclusion.

There is a distinct line between the dissemination of unbiased information on the one hand, and electioneering and downright "intimidating" [your word, not mine], on the other. The former may be appropriate. The latter most definitely is not. And I submit it is a pretty bright line not all that difficult of recognition.

Posted by: LAWPOOL | November 1, 2010 2:54 PM | Report abuse

Its like Illinois "Pay to play", only here, instead of outright bribery,
organizations that must get along with
county government for financial reasons
are afraid to take an independent view
on the Ambulance fee issue.

Whether or not its legal, it certainly leaves
a bad taste in my mouth when government uses
taxpayer money and employees during working
hours to do a full court press on one side
of a referendum issue.

Win or lose, the county government has damaged its relationship
with the county residents.
It needs to step back and do
some serious rethinking.

Posted by: mikegordon1 | November 1, 2010 4:20 PM | Report abuse

I quote from this article:

"Montgomery Circuit Court Judge Robert A. Greenberg DID NOT ADDRESS the question of whether the county's campaign activities in recent days and weeks have been LEGAL."
[EMPHASIS supplied]

"Instead, Greenberg ruled that volunteer firefighters filed their suit too late."

"Acting County Attorney Marc Hansen said the ruling means the county can proceed with education and advocacy efforts as planned going into Tuesday's vote. The county's activities HAVE BEEN LEGAL, Hansen argued." [EMPHASIS supplied]

Of course, this is the same judge that recognized earlier today the tactics utilized by the County Government at taxpayer expense actually were "intimidating" to voters, and the same Acting County Attorney who also recognized the "intimidating" nature of the County's so-called "education and advocacy efforts".

The relief requested by the Plaintiffs in this particular case, [a more or less meaningless injunction on the eve of the election], was denied solely on a timeliness issue.

The actual LEGALITY of this obvious twisted perversion of the use of Taxpayer funds to advance a particular political agenda in order to sway voters remains to be determined.

It makes absolutely no difference the subject of the debate; that is entirely irrelevant in examining the much larger and more important issue as to the utilization of the government soapbox and taxpayer funds to sway the voters at the ballot box re a decision expressly left to the voters and NOT the government, per the County Charter.

Hell, why not tell me how to vote on everything else as well, County Council, Bd of Ed, State Constitutional Questions-- after all, it would just be, according to my local government's propoganda, "education and advocacy", right?

My question is this, if it is ultimately determined that County officials may not lawfully authorize the expenditures from the public coffers for blatant electioneering, who the hell is going to pay that back to me and every other taxpayer in Montgomery County? I suspect no one, because no one is ever going to be held personally liable for such BS, even though they damn well knew, or should have known, it was totally inappropriate.

Some appellate court ultimately is likely to say, "Well, you [that faceless entity known as the Montgomery County Government] really shouldn't have done it, and don't do it again." Of course, that provides no disincentive at all; on the contrary, I submit, may only embolden all local governments to engage in even more egregious BS in the future.

And that would be so sad, so totally regrettable.

Regardless of the outcome, I suspect a final judicial determination will provide no recompense to anyone. And that, fellow taxpayers of Montgomery County, I submit is just not right.

My opinions.

Posted by: LAWPOOL | November 1, 2010 6:02 PM | Report abuse

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