Bureaucrats, officials closing doors on the public


Chalk it up to bureaucratic ineptness or old-fashioned stonewalling.

Whatever the reason, Marylanders have a hard time prying the most mundane information from the Motor Vehicle Administration, State Lottery Commission and other state agencies, a new study shows. According to results released last week by the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association, which sought public documents from the agencies, more than a third of the requests were stymied.

And the surveyors were posing as regular citizens.

That statistic -- in a state whose Public Information Act was codified in 1970 -- is dispiriting enough. But the study highlights just one of the many problems that Marylanders face in monitoring the actions of state and local governments.

The legal cornerstones that guarantee open meetings and access to government information in Maryland are being eroded by ill-informed bureaucrats as well as calculating officials. Meanwhile, more far-reaching changes are occurring in the courts and General Assembly.

There's no doubt, though, that these protections are being chipped away -- or hammered to death.

"People are fundamentally questioning the very principles of open government," says Charles Davis, executive director of the Freedom of Information Center at the University of Missouri School of Journalism.

He attributes the nationwide trend to increased concerns over privacy, and the potential that technology brings for the misuse of personal data. At the same time, post-Sept. 11 fears of terrorism have led to a new era of "executive secrecy," he says -- and have injected the issue of government access with a heavy dose of politics.

"Openness has become a partisan issue ... I really regret that. It is absolutely a bipartisan democratic value."

On a state and local level, the threats come from all sides.

The press association study, for example, sought records from a sampling of agencies scattered around Maryland. These were not controversial reports coveted by grizzled investigative reporters, but documents that any Marylander might want: restaurant inspection reports, property assessments, individual driving records and complaints against real estate appraisers and lottery vendors.

Most agencies were responsive. Some, including the State Ethics Commission, the Division of Vital Records and agencies that oversee restaurants and real estate provided the information almost immediately.

But a significant number of requests -- 10 of 25 -- were not honored within the 30 days prescribed by state law.

Those who made the requests received a lot of excuses. One was told that the Maryland Privacy Act prohibited releasing the information -- even though there is no such law. Another was told that a state employee handling the request was away for a couple of weeks because his wife had had a baby.

Clearly, many state employees lack a firm grasp of Maryland's public information law.

James Donahue, executive director of the press association, says such reluctance to release information stems from the attitudes of high-ranking officials. In the tug-of-war between privacy and access, many officials are pushing more rules, regulations and laws that limit openness.

"That sends a huge message to custodians of records ... saying, 'Don't give out the information.' A culture has been created," he says.

You don't have to look far to find officials with the attitude noted by Donahue.

In January, Baltimore County's school board split into two groups while discussing budget cuts -- a calculated move to avoid the quorum requirements of the state Open Meetings Act. Without a quorum, the board reasoned, there would be no official meeting; therefore, no one from the public had to be allowed in.

That maneuver was revealed later, triggering criticism from county parents. The school board members promised to be more open. But they met behind closed doors again in May, to renew the superintendent's contract and give him a raise.

The state Open Meetings Compliance Board later ruled that the board did not follow legal requirements in the May meeting, including notifying the public and taking minutes.

Similarly, the Baltimore City Council did not publicize an August 2002 meeting to discuss an important restructuring plan for the council. After reporters and others heard about the meeting, the council president closed it, without a vote.

Maryland's Court of Appeals, which struck the plan from Baltimore's ballot, held that the council actions had violated the open meetings law.

The General Assembly is rife with debates over privacy and openness.

In the 2003 session, legislators considered measures that would have restricted access to various documents, including those related to hazardous materials and economic development. Most were killed, but legislators did block access to some building records that had been open to the public. That measure was called a safeguard against terrorism.

But the biggest threat to openness may come from a recent court ruling in Howard County.

In August, Circuit Judge James B. Dudley blocked a legal challenge to the county school board for alleged violations of the open meetings law. The plaintiff, Allen Dyer, a former school board candidate, accused the board of holding illegal closed sessions, failing to notify the public of meetings and not providing records.

Dudley ruled that Dyer could not sue because he could show no personal harm from the board's action, and was not affected any more than the general county population.

That ruling sparked criticism from the news media and others who have pushed for broader access to government; the regional press association has asked to join Dyer's appeal. Many fear that such a limitation would insulate public officials by restricting challenges under state law.

It is likely to take months for that appeal to be resolved. But if the ruling is upheld, it will strike a big blow against government openness.

And it will make bureaucratic ineptness and stonewalling seem quaint by comparison.

David Rosenthal, an editor at The Sun, is a member of the MDDC press association's government affairs committee.

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