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Making Maryland more transparent

ElectionsExecutive BranchLocal GovernmentEthics

When it comes to accessing public information, the Free State isn't all that free. The law requires state and local government agencies to make records of all kinds available to the public, and although it is allowed certain exceptions, the government is supposed to err on the side of disclosure. But in practice, requests under Maryland's Public Information Act are routinely subject to delays, responses are frequently incomplete and the fees charged for accessing material every Marylander is supposed to have a right to see are often arbitrary and excessive.

The Center for Public Integrity ranks the states on its "corruption risk" — essentially, a measure of the effectiveness of open records, transparency and ethics laws and procedures — and Maryland gets a D-, ranking 40th out of the 50 states. Among its failings is a weak public records law that is even weaker in practice, in part because citizens have no realistic recourse for complaining about delays, denials and prohibitive costs.

State leaders have made some halting efforts to improve the situation in the last few years. Gov. Martin O'Malley's administration has put a great deal of data online through StateStat and related programs, and the legislature recently decided to require campaign donors to include information about their employers. Maryland also now produces an online database that gives some information about state contracts. But public information access has never been a front-burner issue, a legacy perhaps of decades of one-party government.

Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, an all-but-declared candidate for governor, is promising to change that. This week, he unveiled a series of proposals to increase government transparency and accountability, and while they wouldn't solve every problem with access to public information in Maryland, they would represent a significant improvement.

Perhaps the most important of his ideas is the creation of an inspector general for public information, an official who would ensure uniform access to information across agencies, improving the way the state disseminates data and fielding complaints from the public about access to information.

That last part is particularly crucial. As it stands, those who request documents from the government are at a distinct disadvantage, in that officials have discretion to deny access to information for a variety of reasons, and those decisions can only effectively be challenged in court. News organizations like The Sun do periodically sue over access to documents, but that is much less likely to be an option for an individual citizen who wants to know about the workings of government. An inspector general would at least be a neutral third party who could provide some level of review short of costly and time-consuming litigation.

(There is some irony in Mr. Gansler being the one to propose this idea, in that his staff members, working in their capacity as counsel to various state agencies, are frequently the ones who decide which documents are disclosed.)

The inspector general would be housed in the comptroller's office but would operate independently, a model that has worked well for the people's counsel and the independent juvenile justice monitor. The only fault with Mr. Gansler's idea is that he may be asking this new office to do too much — he also wants it to seek out government inefficiency and hold agencies accountable for their performance. Those are also important goals but could dilute the focus on improving transparency and access to public information.

Mr. Gansler also proposed creating a "transparency portal" collecting in one place data gathered and published by various agencies; requiring that state agencies publish records of meetings they hold with outside parties about regulations that are under review; establishing a website that links data on state contracts with campaign finance contributions; encouraging outside groups to develop technological tools to foster open government; and helping local governments to improve their reporting of public information.

Those ideas should now be the baseline for what all candidates for governor from both parties propose. In fact, we hope others take the issue further. Maryland should address the arbitrary costs and delays that are now commonly imposed on those who seek government records, and it should make officials' ethics filings more easily accessible. Transparency is not a partisan issue, and it is not one that should be forgotten after Election Day.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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