Citizens Demand Constitutional Protection from Mapping Plan

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County Reconsidering Acceptance of $437K Grant for 911 Upgrade

LEONARDTOWN - 4/7/2008

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By Sean Rice, Managing Editor

Dozens of citizens descended on the St. Mary’s County Board of Commissioners meeting Tuesday night, demanding the county protect their constitutional rights and kill a proposal to photograph all homes.

The Commissioners called the public forum due to the high volume of complaints received after radio and news reports were released about the plan, which aims at upgrading the county’s Geographic Information System by verifying all known addresses.

St. Mary’s County officials have already accepted a $437,000 grant to fund a first phase of the project. The grant funds are derived from fees attached to wireless telephone bills, and distributed by the state Emergency Numbers System Board. The work was scheduled to start April 15, but has been delayed by county officials in response to citizen complaints.

Concerned citizens began calling, mailing and emailing complaints in March, after the county issued a press release stating contractors with badges will be photographing all homes during the next 11 months in an effort to better global-positioning maps.

A stream of concerned citizens took the podium at the meeting and loudly complained the plan would be a violation of their constitutional protections against unlawful search and seizure.

“We cannot create laws or ordinances that overstep the Supreme Court of the United States,” said Roy Fedders, after reading part of the U.S. Constitution. The crowd that filled the meeting room, hallway and nearby office applauded many times for speakers, including another gentleman who quoted the Maryland Constitution.

Bob Kelly, director of the County’s Information Technology (IT) Department, give a presentation of the plan before residents were given the floor, and answered a few recurring questions that have been received from citizens.

Kelly’s first pointed out that photographers will not be coming on the private property. The plan is to photograph the “entry-way” of the addresses as an effort to provide visual confirmation for responding fire, police and medical personnel, Kelly said. The goal is not to catch zoning or building violations and photos will not be posted on the county’s Web site.

“It’s not how it’s been portrayed by some,” Commissioner Tom Mattingly said. “It’s not about peeping in peoples' windows. It’s not about coming and seeing what structures have been put up.”

Mattingly is passionate about issued relating to fire and emergency services because he has a second career as a volunteer firefighter. Mattingly spoke of several recent incidents when emergency responders have literally gotten lost when trying to locate unmapped or incorrectly numbered addresses.

The application for the grant came from the county’s Department of Public Safety, but the data collected will be incorporated by the county’s (IT) Department.

“We have urged the county staff to seek out grants for a wide variety of services, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to award all of them,” Commissioner Dan Raley told The Bay Net on Friday. “I’m not even sure this is going to go forward.”

Several residents also pointed out that this plan doesn’t include mapping residences on private roads, which officials say is 40 percent of the problem. Several residents said it is clear a “second phase” will have to be completed at taxpayer expense.

“We’re going to weigh this deal, taking the pictures,” Commissioner President Jack Russell told The Bay Net.

“There’s no free money, everybody pays for it,” Mattingly said. “But if we don’t take our share, someone else is going to take it.”

The commissioners are still accepting public comments on the issue for another week.

Raley said the board will then decide one of three things: Reject the grant, go ahead as planned, or modify the proposal.

When asked if he thinks the plan can be modified to still go forward, Mattingly said, “I hope so. This is a great opportunity to upgrade the 911 system.”

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