Reform due for state's Public Information Act [Editorial]

Baltimore Sun Media Group

Poll any citizen about the wisdom of open records and meetings in government, and you will likely hear support for transparent conduct of the public's business — let the sunshine in. To be sure, there are topics best handled behind closed doors — negotiations over land sale or purchase, personnel matters, litigation, etc. But if the benefits of disclosure outweigh any harm, we'll always argue for disclosure.

But even when there is ostensible transparency, bureaucratic barriers can make governments less than forthcoming when asked to hand over documents. These obstacles are often cost-related, ranging from per-page fees for document copying to the cost of hiring a lawyer to sue for information.

Legislation before the Maryland General Assembly to rewrite the Public Information Act — Senate Bill 695, cross-filed as House Bill 755 — would give the public (and this includes not just private citizens, but the media, businesses, nonprofits, advocacy groups, political campaigns and researchers, among others) a stronger hand when seeking records.

Some Maryland agencies have charged up to 75 cents per page for photocopies and as much as $50 an hour to pay attorneys to clear documents before they are released. These charges may or may not correspond to the actual costs incurred, but need only comply with the current standard that the agency deem the costs "reasonable." If you balk at these "reasonable" costs, the only alternative is to sue, which is also an expensive proposition. The bill would abolish this "reasonable" standard and limit fees to the actual costs incurred.

Meanwhile, the bill would also establish an ombudsman in the Maryland Attorney General's office empowered to mediate disputes. The ombudsman's decisions would not be legally binding, but would provide a platform for resolving freedom-of-information disputes outside a courtroom.

Another measure targets training. House Bill 1251, an amendment to an existing law introduced by Del. Warren Miller, whose district includes part of Howard County, would require every public official to undergo open meetings law training within 30 days of being hired.

Whether or not these bills become law, Marylanders should know that the promise of "sunshine" in the state's Public Information Act comes with some clouds. Most state employees no doubt make disclosure decisions in good faith, but others may be disinclined to share files. Those who prefer shadows to sunshine in public affairs sometimes need reminding of who they actually work for.

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