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State considers Public Information Act reforms

State bills that call for significant Public Information Act reform, including a limit on fees charged for PIA requests and the creation of a compliance board have gathered the support of the Maryland-Delaware-District of Columbia Press Association and various nonprofit organizations.

State bills that call for significant Public Information Act reform, including a limit on fees charged for PIA requests and the creation of a compliance board have gathered the support of the Maryland-Delaware-District of Columbia Press Association and various nonprofit organizations.

Senate Bill 695, introduced by Montgomery County Sen. Jamie Raskin, D-District 20, seeks to address complaints from citizens, journalists and organizations that have had PIA requests denied, have alleged arbitrary and prohibitive charges for requests or have had requests for fee waiver improperly denied.

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The list of groups supporting the bill include The OpenGov Foundation, the League of Women Voters of Maryland and the American Civil Liberties Union, among others.

The Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee held a hearing on the bill March 6. Its analysis concluded that the bill could increase state spending by more than $70,000 in fiscal year 2016 for staff support and could have a significant impact on local government operations.

MDDC conducted a study about the number of requests county and municipal governments receive in a year, how they are handled, the number denied and the fees assessed for said requests.

Released in December, the report revealed a lack of consistency among governments for copies of records, record searches or fee waivers.

Of note, out of 155 PIA requests the association sent to governments for the purpose of compiling a sample, 114 received responses. Four Maryland counties failed to respond within the 30-day period outlined in the Public Information Act.

Of the counties that did respond, several attempted to justify the size of their fees. According to the report: "Taken as singular responses, the replies concerning costs do not seem unreasonable. … It is only when viewed in contrast to other counties which were able to quickly assemble all the information at no cost do these explanations seem inadequate."

Charles County officials responded in a letter that the cost to assemble the requested documents would be $947.12, with a $412.06 down payment required.

In contrast, Carroll County provided records of more than 150 PIA requests free.

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Many county officers and attorneys did not agree to waive the charges, even when the association provided the reasons for their requests, "which runs counter to the intent of the Public Information Act," the report noted.

Based on the study's findings, the report recommended that a compliance board be created to assess potential PIA violations — similar to the state's Open Meetings Compliance Board — and that penalties be imposed on governments that "ignore or do not respond to requests for public information."

The bill, which Montgomery Del. Bonnie Cullison, D-District 19, cross-filed as House Bill 755, sets a $250 limit on PIA request fees and establishes a PIA Compliance Board to address any request issues.

The House Health and Government Operations Committee heard the bill on Wednsday, and the Department of Legislative Services' fiscal findings matched those of the Senate committee.

Under current law, the only alternatives that complainants have is filing a lawsuit. The bill would require the board to issue written opinions concerning potential violations and would instill it with the power to waive fees, levy fines against public bodies that violate the act and order the custodian of the requested records to produce said documents.

The board may levy a $100 fine for each day the custodian of the requested records takes to provide access, with a maximum fine set at $1,000.

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A separate bill, HB 867, introduced by Baltimore Del. Jill Carter, D-District 41, would also set a limit on request fees — but at $500 — and create a compliance board, but without the power to levy fines.

Carroll County Del. Haven Shoemaker, R-District 5, said the problem with HB 755, which Carter's proposal tries to remedy, is that fines against government agencies would be paid with tax dollars.

"It's not going to come out of the individual agency's pocket; it's going to come out of the taxpayers'," Shoemaker said. "They are burdened enough as is."

He said he is not opposed to the concept of such a board, but he would need to take a closer look at its powers and how easily it could levy a fine.

"The devil is always in the details," Shoemaker said.

One such detail that has garnered public opposition involves the legislation's application to farmers.

HB 755 would keep governmental records of producers' names and contact information along with their nutrient management plans — such personal information would not be open to the public.

Del. Barrie Ciliberti, R-District 4, of Frederick and Carroll counties, said that during HB 755's committee hearing on Wednesday, more than 30 farmers testified against the bill.

"The fact that there are 30 people against it means they probably don't want more legislative control over their farms," Ciliberti said.

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

Further legislation would mandate public information points of contact

In order to streamline responses to Public Information Act requests and allow for easier access to records, another piece of legislation has been proposed in the General Assembly that would require all governing agencies designate a single point of contact for such requests.

House Bill 674, introduced by Prince George's Del. Erek Barron, D-District 24, would mandate that all agencies that keep public records identify a representative annually who would handle all PIA requests. The bill would also require the public body to have contact information for this person be easily accessible to the public by posting it either on a website or in another public forum.

The House Health and Government Operations Committee held a hearing for the bill on Wednesday, and analysis concluded that local jurisdictions could meet the requirements with existing budgeted resources.

Frederick Sen. Ronald Young, D-District 3, cross-filed the legislation as Senate Bill 852. The Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on Thursday.

Del. Haven Shoemaker, R-District 5, of Carroll County, said he supports anything that "promotes the interests of transparency." His one caveat is that any personal information should be protected "to some extent," he said.

During Shoemaker's tenure as a Carroll County commissioner from 2010 to 2014, the board was involved in a lawsuit seeking the commissioners' government email lists. The commissioners agreed that the lists should be in the public record but cautioned the court that the release of the information could cause "substantial injury to the public interest."

They feared that the release of correspondents' personal email addresses could lead to online attacks on the county's citizens.

"There ought to be a mechanism to protects folks' private [information]," Shoemaker said. "Anything that creates more transparency without infringing on individuals' rights to privacy, I'm all in favor of."

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Del. Barrie Ciliberti, R-District 4, of Frederick and Carroll counties, said HB 674 has yet to be voted out of the committee for its second hearing in the House.

"There could be some snakes in the fine print, which is holding it up," Ciliberti said.

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

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