Lawmakers interested in improving transparency and open government in Maryland should support changes in the public records law proposed by a group of more than two dozen non-profit organizations.

SB695, which is sponsored by District 20 Sen. Jamie Raskin and will be cross-filed in the House of Delegates by District 19 Del. Bonnie Cullison, would update the Maryland Public Information Act and remove obstacles to public access to public records by limiting and standardizing fees, improving oversight and closing exemption loopholes.


Marylanders for Open Government, a broad network of environmental organizations, public health groups, good government groups, consumer advocates and social justice organizations, is working together to pass this legislation.

A December report on local governments' compliance with the state's Public Information Act compiled by the Maryland-Delaware-DC Press Association revealed widespread disparity in how Public Information Act requests were handled. There is little consistency concerning when records are provided or denied, the costs that are assessed or the amount of time that it takes to process requests. Additionally, people who are denied access to records have no recourse other than to use their own money and sue.

Among the key elements of the bill are provisions to improve compliance by creating an open records compliance board, modeled after the current Open Meetings Compliance Board, and by Limiting and standardizing fees that local governments charge for Public Information Act requests.

Maryland's Public Information Act, adopted in 1970, has been in need of updating for years, but lawmakers never seem to muster the will to make the improvements that will bring the law into the electronic age.

Governments typically refuse to release databases of public information or, rather than simply email public documents in response to a PIA request some will print out paper copies and then charge for them, even if electronic copies are requested.

Fees charged for copies and searching are basically left up to the governments, some of which have used huge cost estimates as a deterrent to avoid producing requesting documents.

Government records are called public documents because, ultimately, the public is the owner. Providing access to public documents should be a routine part of any good government's culture, and officials should not erect barriers that prevent the public from watching over how or where their tax dollars are being spent.

Lawmakers have tinkered a little with the open records and open meetings laws in recent years, but this legislation offers an opportunity for real positive change that would improve transparency and accountability across the state.