Back in 1970 when Maryland was just entering what might be described as its golden age of political corruption, the General Assembly passed a law to make it easier for people to obtain government records. The Public Information Act was seen as a way to help hold all state agencies — executive, legislative and judicial — more accountable to the citizens.
The PIA has been a huge success. Every day it is used by someone somewhere to peruse the fine print of a disputed contract, find out how taxpayer dollars are spent, discover what senior officials are saying to each other (or to those in private industry they are supposed to be regulating) and analyze the thousands of other myriad functions of government. Journalists are a major beneficiary of the law, but PIA requests are by no means limited to them.
Unfortunately, in the intervening years some in state service have discovered there are many ways to thwart public information requests. Granted, some restrictions are understandable and require balancing people's right to privacy with the need for government transparency. Medical records of state employees, for instance, are exempt as they should be. So are those records that might infringe on attorney-client privilege.
But there are also loopholes that can be exploited. Agencies are allowed to charge a "reasonable" fee, but when officials say the requested records must be copied at 50 cents a page and turn over many thousands of pages, the effect can be chilling on the media, let alone individuals. There can even be labor charges for a records search and review that takes longer than two hours, which can add up to thousands if the reviewer is a lawyer. Or record keepers may redact large sections of data without adequate explanation or severely restrict the hours that public records can be inspected.
One of the most common tactics to deter requests is simply to drag one's feet in the hope that the request will eventually be abandoned. Some agencies offer an appeal process, but others do not. Ultimately, the only choice is for the applicant to file a motion to the local circuit court, but hiring a private attorney can, like the charges for copying huge volumes of records, be costly enough to deter many individuals.
That's why legislation offered this session by Del. Jill P. Carter, a Baltimore Democrat and attorney, is essential to correcting these potential transgressions. She has proposed creating a three-member compliance board appointed by the governor that would resolve complaints when an agency has denied a PIA request, charged an unreasonable fee of more than $500 or taken other steps that do not comply with the law.
Such an administrative review would clearly be cheaper for all involved. Here's how much it would cost taxpayers: $0. At least that's according to the independent analysis performed by the Department of Legislative Services. Plus, the board will be expected to be more than an arbiter of disputes but study and regularly report on the state's PIA performance. That's exactly the kind of reinforcement and support that the law requires.
The watchdog group Common Cause Maryland has enthusiastically endorsed the bill as a way for people improperly denied access to records to avoid expensive litigation. Such compliance panels are not uncommon in other states, and Maryland already staffs a similar board to review the state's open meetings law that limits the circumstances under which elected officials can confer in secret.
Making government documents more available to the general public — and journalists ought to receive no special treatment in this regard — should be a top priority for elected officials. In this digital age, there are fewer and fewer good reasons why public records can't be provided at the touch of a button on a computer keyboard and posted electronically for the world to see.
The bill would neither limit nor expand the exemptions provided under the PIA, so skeptics can't claim that the review board would do anything but ensure greater adherence to a well-established 44-year-old law. If anything, the reform is badly overdue. Providing the general public with additional information about the actions of their elected officials and rank-and-file civil servants is no guarantee of good government (or of preventing the kind of public corruption Maryland has seen over the last four decades), but it's certainly a step in the right direction.
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