It’s a recurring source of tension between reporters and government officials: How quickly do agencies have to release public information? That issue arose recently in emails between city officials that were obtained by The Baltimore Sun through a public records request.
The Sun was working on a story about tax credits and orally requested copies of letters sent to several homeowners. Dorothy Reed, a manager in the Bureau of Revenue Collections, asked for a written request, and one was emailed to her shortly before 5 p.m. on a Friday.
Precisely a minute later, Reed forwarded the email to Henry Raymond, the department’s deputy director. “Should I send them now?” she asked.
“No,” he replied a little over an hour later. “We have 3o (sic) days to respond.”
Actually, state law doesn’t say officials have 30 days. It says they have up to 30 days — if necessary.
“A custodian should not wait the full 30 days to allow or deny access to a record if that amount of time is not needed to respond,” says the Maryland Public Information Act Manual produced by the Attorney General’s Office. The manual says records should be released “as quickly as possible.”
University of Maryland law professor emeritus Abraham Dash called Raymond’s email “pretty damning.” “That would be definitely, I think, violating the spirit and the intent of the attorney general’s instructions, which is if you can send it and have no problem, send it,” Dash said.
Not so, Raymond said in an interview. He says he wasn’t telling Reed to hold off merely because he thought the law allowed it. Rather, he says he wanted to review the letters first as part of the “appropriate internal process.”
So why not just say that in the email to Reed? “Because I don’t have all day to write long emails,” Raymond said. “So I wrote a short email. We have 30 days to deal with it. And it didn’t take that long.”
On that last point there’s no disagreement. It didn’t take 30 days in this case. After two more written requests, the five letters arrived by email the following Wednesday. The city did black out one bit of information: the sums these taxpayers owed for having received erroneous credits — information that was freely available on the city’s property tax bill website.