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Summit urged on public records

THE BALTIMORE SUN

State and local officials should convene a "summit" to address widespread abuses of Maryland's public-records law, House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. said yesterday.

Taylor told members of the Maryland-Delaware-District of Columbia Press Association that he hopes to arrange a meeting of county, municipal and state leaders, as well as news executives, to discuss increased training for government employees in handling citizens' requests to see and copy public records.

Speaking to the press group at Rocky Gap Lodge and Golf Resort, the Allegany County Democrat said that a recent test of the state's Public Information Act by 20 state newspapers showed that many bureaucrats are unaware of their obligations.

The newspapers reported last week that only half their requests to see public documents were granted by state and local government offices in Baltimore and all 23 counties.

"In some circles, batting .500 is pretty good," Taylor said in an interview. "In this case, I don't think it's acceptable."

Newspaper employees, posing as citizens, asked to see records on arrests, driving violations, nursing home inspections, school violence, police chief expenses and school superintendents' employment.

The newspapers' test also found that people asking to see public records often are required to show identification, or state their reasons for wanting to inspect government documents - demands that are generally against the law.(The Sun did not participate in the test but reported its results.)

The House speaker said he intends to contact Gov. Parris N. Glendening and leaders of the state's county and municipal government associations to urge them to participate in a "high-level meeting" on how to improve compliance with the public-information law.

"What we need, before the editorial pages make criminals out of our civil servants, is a much stronger education program, from state and local governments, for their employees," Taylor said. He said workers need better guidance on which records are public and which ones must be kept private, and on how to handle requests expeditiously.

The House speaker said he did not see any need for overhauling Maryland's 30-year-old public information law, which he contended is strong enough.

"This is an issue more for the bureaucracy than for the legislature," Taylor said. But he added that he hopes to hold talks with state and local government leaders before the General Assembly convenes in January so that lawmakers can "fine-tune" the law if that is needed.

If talks reveal the need for more than minor changes, Taylor said he might be willing to reconsider legislation sought in vain two years ago by the press association that would have set up a task force to study the public-information law.

"This summit-type meeting that brings all the appropriate groups together is the appropriate first step before we consider or reconsider [legislation], Taylor said.

An assistant attorney general told the press group on Thursday that his office is working on clearer, more streamlined guidelines for public employees on how to handle citizens' requests to see and copy records. Those guidelines should be part of a revised public-information manual due out by the end of October, said the state lawyer, Jack Schwartz.

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