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Blame set in records denial


Marylanders who get the runaround when they go looking for public documents - whether from local police or the state ethics commission - are the victims of civil servants who should know better, according to government officials contacted yesterday.

An audit this week showed that citizens have a 50-50 chance of getting to see documents available to them under state law. When The Sun attempted to get basic arrest information from police departments around the metro area Wednesday, it succeeded less than half the time.

The reporters did not identify themselves as members of the media when asking to see the records.

Republican Del. Joseph M. Getty of Carroll County, who has failed to persuade General Assembly colleagues to strengthen public-access laws, said the midsummer audit by the Maryland-Delaware-District of Columbia Press Association shows that the law is not being enforced.

Getty added, however, that improving the current law - which protects the public's right to inspect and copy arrest records, government-employee salary information, agency correspondence and a wide range of other materials - would be futile if government workers didn't know or respect what it says.

"The problems," he said, "seem to be with the gatekeepers."

Baltimore County Attorney Virginia Barnhart disagreed, saying that if the public followed the letter of the law - which, she said, requires requests to be made through the "custodian" of the records - there would be no problems.

In most cases in the county, the custodian is the department head.

Barnhart acknowledged that local governments could do a better job of educating employees about where to send people who want public information.

Said Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger: "Where we have to do a better job is if people want records, and the front line is not sure if records violate right to privacy, they have to be able to go to custodians."

Ruppersberger added that reporters testing the law should have been more aggressive in asking employees to contact supervisors.

"That issue could have been fixed with a phone call," he said.

In Baltimore, police Commissioner Edward T. Norris said he is asking department lawyers to make sure officers provide records as required.

At the state police barracks in Westminster, a reporter was told that requests for information had to be made in writing. Cpl. Rob Moroney said it is Maryland policy to require people who want to review state police records to submit their request in writing.

Requests for accident reports cost $4 each, Moroney said, and 50 cents per page for all other reports.

Carroll County Sheriff Kenneth L. Tregoning said his office "is open and cooperative" and noted that his office releases a daily list of arrests and charges to the media.

"We follow the guidelines of the Freedom of Information Act to the letter of the law," Tregoning said.

Carroll County Commissioner Donald I. Dell said he has "often questioned the necessity of people having to ask for information under the Freedom of Information Act."

Upon reflection, Dell added: "I guess it's a good thing. Then we have a record of what information is being requested, and we can make sure it's legal to release it."

While Gov. Parris N. Glendening said yesterday that "in general records ought to be as open as possible," he would not commit to any specific action to bolster the law.

Michael Morrill, a Glendening spokesman, said that most compliance problems occur at the local level and that "every state employee is aware of the open-records laws and is expected to abide by them."

But many public employees seem unaware that citizens have such rights.

On Wednesday, visits to the Howard County Police Department provided examples of how compliance with public-access laws can vary.

In the department's Northern District patrol office in Ellicott City, a reporter seeking arrest logs was promptly directed to a bin in the lobby - no questions asked.

Hanging from a bulletin board, the plastic bin contained photocopies of adult arrest logs for the past week. The records included names and criminal charges, everything from drug violations to prostitution. No material appeared to have been censored.

It was a different story at the department's Southern District patrol office in Scaggsville.

"And your name?" public service aide M. A. Brown inquired when a reporter asked to see arrest logs.

"And who are you with?" she wanted to know. After checking with someone else in the office, Brown directed the reporter to the Ellicott City office, where the logs available in the lobby list arrests from across the county.

Assistant Howard County Solicitor Thomas P. Carbo, who advises county agencies on public information requests, said the Scaggsville clerk erred in asking such questions.

"They shouldn't be asking you who you are, why you're asking for the records," he said. "They should be immediately trying to determine whether it's a public record and if they have any doubt, they should refer to legal counsel."

Anne Arundel County Attorney Linda M. Schuett sent county departments a memo last week outlining procedures for giving documents to the public.

She described which records the public can inspect and how quickly the county must produce them. It also gave employees pointers on how to be polite.

"Be courteous and supportive of the public's right to inspect our public records," Schuett wrote. "Don't interrogate the applicant. Generally, you don't have the right to know why the person wants the document."

Yet on Wednesday, at the police district in Brooklyn Park, an arrest log provided by desk officers was snatched away by a lieutenant.

Yesterday police spokesman Sgt. Joe Jordan said Schuett's memo had not reached the police department. He said Schuett's office is still formulating policy for the release of police records.

"At this point, we really don't have clear direction until they get back to us," Jordan said.

Sun staff writers Maria Blackburn, Scott Calvert, Michael Dresser, Peter Hermann, Dennis O'Brien, Laura Vozzella and Timothy B. Wheeler contributed to this article.

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