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Montgomery government campaigns in election, drawing lawsuit

An interesting spectacle is developing in Montgomery County in the long-running debate over whether to levy ambulance fees there.

Because fee opponents managed at the 11th hour to get the question put on Tuesday's ballots, that has left the county executive, Isiah Leggett, and others scrambling to garner opposition to the measure, lest voters blow a $14 million hole in the county budget.

Thus you have the unusual spectacle of a government mounting a political campaign. County fire and rescue employees have been distributing flyers in the course of their professional duties in recent weeks, urging residents to vote against the ballot question.

The Montgomery County Volunteer Fire-Rescue Association, the most vocal opposition to the fee proposal, filed suit in Maryland court today asking a judge to keep county employees from what it describes as "massive electioneering activity."

John T. Bentivoglio, a lawyer representing the volunteers, said in a statement that the law does not "allow commandeer career personnel and use unlimited county tax dollars to wage a political campaign." Firefighters and others, he said, should stick to "activities directly related to their public safety responsibility - not working the polls to handout out campaign literature."

Patrick Lacefield, Leggett's spokesperson, said that the campaigning is being done to defend official county policy, proposed by Leggett and passed by a majority of county council members.

"Counties are able to express and defend their policies, even involving elections," Lacefield said this evening, calling the practice "totally legal and totally appropriate." The county attorney, he added, has reviewed and approved the campaign.

Eric N. Bernard, executive director of the volunteers' group, says paid firefighters have distributed the materials at Metro stations, supermarkets, high school football games, and at early polling locations. Lacefield said that county employees not comfortable with the campaigning are free to not participate.

A circuit court judge is set to hear the case 10:30 a.m. on Monday in Rockville.

Lacefield held out the possibility that firefighters, on county time, will be working polling places on Tuesday. "We'll have to see what happens," he said.

By Mike DeBonis  | October 29, 2010; 7:04 PM ET
Categories:  Maryland, Montgomery County  
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Legget says not to worry about the fee, because insurance will cover it. That is if you have insurance.

Posted by: jckdoors | November 1, 2010 8:25 AM | Report abuse

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