Shining a light on government

How can Marylanders judge their government's performance when they are so often kept in the dark?

Whether it's a matter of examining the troubled launch of the Maryland's health insurance exchange, investigating allegations of police brutality in Baltimore or determining whether certain government contractors paid legally sufficient wages to their workers, access to public records is vital to holding government accountable. Reporters and others in the news media depend on such disclosures, but so do average folks in this state who just want to know whether they are being treated fairly.

Yet the opportunities to refuse or subvert such requests for public information are numerous. Rare is the reporter who has not been stymied at some point by state or local government agencies refusing to release records, charging outrageous fees to do so or simply dragging their heels, confident that the person requesting the information hasn't the time, the financial wherewithal or the legal resources to do anything about it.

Maryland has a law that's supposed to prevent such debacles, but it was written in 1970 and has more loopholes than the state has media outlets. What helped thwart public corruption 45 years ago needs to be updated for the digital age — an era when the public's "watchdog" could be a blogger with a laptop looking to review emails or text messages who can no more produce $250 in copying fees than drive to Annapolis in a stretch limousine with a team of transcriptionists.

Fortunately, there is an effort underway to update the Maryland Public Information Act. The proposed legislation has three main components. It would standardize fees, limiting most to the actual cost of reproducing documents. It would require that agencies that invoke exemptions to disclosure — protecting trade secrets, for instance — demonstrate that the potential harm outweighs the public benefits of releasing information. That kind of balancing act hasn't been required in the past.

But perhaps most importantly, the bill would create a three-person citizen compliance board to serve as an arbiter when disagreements arise. That would give members of the public a place to plead their case without the costly option of hiring a lawyer and going to court. The members would be appointed by the governor, and at least one would have to be an attorney.

State Sen. Jamie Raskin, a Montgomery County Democrat who is sponsoring the bill, says he's confident the measure will draw bipartisan support, calling it an "investment in democracy." Lawmakers frequently hear complaints from individuals unfairly denied access to public information, he notes, and this would be the first comprehensive update of the law since it was first put on the books.

No doubt some in state and local government will have a problem with this approach and fret about the inconvenience and expense of responding to records requests. But that burden seems a small price to pay for the assurance that democracy is working and that people can find out what government is doing — at least without the filter of bureaucracies or politicians.

A recent review by the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association found incidents in which reporters were charged as much as $50 an hour in copying costs, in some cases totaling into the thousands of dollars. Currently, the only way to appeal such charges is in court. Meanwhile, foot-dragging by agencies proved just as common a practice, as government workers scrambled to "correct" whatever deficiency a records request might reveal to the public. And again, a trip to court is often the only way to counter the practice.

Good government legislation doesn't usually get a high priority in Annapolis, but this year may prove atypical. Gov. Larry Hogan's embrace of voluntary public financing of campaigns and an independent political redistricting process has demonstrated an appetite for reform and a willingness to challenge the status quo. With a Republican now serving as governor, Democrats might also find political advantage in opening state government to closer scrutiny.

Granted, not all records in government's possession should have to be disclosed. Some exemptions provided under the law — personnel files or employee health records, for example — are perfectly valid. The measure doesn't attempt to eliminate these reasonable barriers nor to prohibit government from charging the actual cost of photocopying. Ultimately, the General Assembly must recognize that the citizens of this state have a right to information that belongs to them — access that's too easily thwarted under the current law.

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