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Bills that will ease the accessibility of public records and require all governing bodies that follow open meetings law to provide agendas are examples of legislation that have been introduced in the General Assembly to create transparency and openness in the political process.

Bills that will ease the accessibility of public records and require all governing bodies that follow open meetings law to provide agendas are examples of legislation that have been introduced in the General Assembly to foster transparency and openness in the political process.

House Bill 83, which was introduced by Del. Susan Krebs, R-District 5, and cross-filed in the Senate as Senate Bill 444 by Sen. Justin Ready, R-District 5, seeks to require all custodians of public records to keep an up-to-date list of all records that can be released. Both legislators represent Carroll County.

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If the bill is signed into law, those who have filed a Public Information Act request will have access to records without unnecessary time delays, which is the basic mandate of the act, Ready said.

"This way, people won't be wasting their time waiting for the information only to find out they can't get it," he said.

The bill passed in the House by a vote of 136-0, and the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee held a hearing for it March 5. It has yet to be scheduled for a second reading in the Senate.

The bill is an amendment to an existing law that states "each official custodian shall consider whether to designate types of public records of the governmental unit that are to be made available to any applicant immediately on request; and maintain a current list of the types of public records that have been designated as available to any applicant immediately on request."

HB 83 simply removes "consider whether to" in order to ensure records that are public knowledge are designated as such and that these records are maintained, Ready said.

It also seeks to correct a contradiction between the Annotated Code of Maryland and one of its provisions.

The code states that when a court issues a judgment, the clerk must immediately issue a copy of the judgment to all parties involved. However, a provision enacted last year says clerks may not issue copies of a judgment until the time to appeal it has passed.

"The language was confusing, but under current law, the public courts could not give out copies of the judgment until the time of appeal is expired, which is 30 days," Krebs said. "This removes that language so they can get a copy of it right away."

HB 583 — which was also filed by Krebs and cross-filed by Sen. Gail Bates, R-District 9, who represents most of Howard County and parts of Carroll — would require all public bodies subject to open meetings law to have an agenda released at the time of the notice of the meeting, or at least 24 hours prior to any session. It was heard by the House Health and Government Operations Committee on Wednesday.

"It's the best practice to give transparency to the process," she said.

The state's Open Meetings Compliance Board, which addresses any issues or questions pertaining to open meetings law, fully supports the bill, Krebs said.

The bill is aimed especially at General Assembly committees that currently do not have to release a specific agenda, she said. Before scheduled committee hearings, they will issue a list of bills they will be discussing that day, but in no order and with no times listed. This makes it difficult for those who may be testifying at the hearings, or those who wish to attend the sessions for a particular issue.

"You could show up at 1 p.m. for a hearing and not be heard until hours later," Krebs said. "It's not fair to those testifying to make them wait for hours."

It will also apply to county and local boards and commissions that may not issue an agenda because they are not closely followed by the public, she said.

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"The intention [of the bill] is to let people know what will be on the agenda so they know if they should attend or not," Krebs said.

Public bodies that must follow open meetings law will still not have to issue agendas concerning the details of closed sessions, she said.

One concern which has been raised by Baltimore City officials, Krebs said, is how these bodies should handle an emergency meeting.

"The worry is that the notice of an emergency meeting may occur less than 24 hours before the meeting takes place, so they wouldn't be able to send out an agenda within the time limit," Krebs said.

She said this concern is easily remedied by stating the purpose of the meeting when the notice is issued.

"We don't want to be onerous," Krebs said. "We aren't trying to tie their hands, but the spirit of the law is that people should know what is going to be spoken about."

Reach staff writer Wiley Hayes at 410-857-3315 or wiley.hayes@carrollcountytimes.com.

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