Open records closed

The Baltimore Sun

In January, Baltimore County officials were asked for a plan on how the government would respond to a hazardous-waste spill -- a document federal law requires be available to the public.

It took three written requests, conversations with four officials and more than 30 days for a reporter to obtain the report.

The request was made as part of Sunshine Week, an annual audit performed by news organizations nationwide to determine whether local governments are complying with open-records laws.

In Maryland and across the nation, many governments refused to hand over the document or delayed providing it, as required by the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act of 1986.

"Clearly, what we need to do a better job of is to educate front-line employees about the very basics of the law and how requests from citizens should be handled," Baltimore County Fire Department spokeswoman Elise Armacost said.

In Maryland, 13 of 23 counties and Baltimore City refused to hand over the document, the survey found. Caroline County on the Eastern Shore said it would charge $1,700 for a county lawyer to vet the file.

Eric Lieberman, chairman of the government affairs committee of the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association, called the survey results "disappointing."

"The way I read the federal law, you should be able to walk into the office, request to look at the emergency response plan, and it should be provided to you immediately," said Lieberman, an in-house lawyer at The Washington Post.

The Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act was passed by Congress after a chemical plant catastrophe in Bhopal, India, set up local emergency-response committees to prepare for chemical spills. The law's provisions are intended to "help increase the public's knowledge and access to information on chemicals at individual facilities, their uses and releases into the environment," according to a summary by the Environmental Protection Agency. In January, about 400 reporters nationwide asked government officials for a copy of the local Comprehensive Emergency Response Plan, which includes transportation routes, notification procedures and evacuation plans. In Maryland, each county is supposed to have a plan.

Reporters were to identify themselves as concerned citizens. Sun employees who participated in the audit got mixed results.

Carroll County officials handed over the report immediately. Harford County officials said the document could be viewed but not copied. And officials in Baltimore City and Anne Arundel and Howard counties either did not respond to requests or declined to hand it over, saying the reports contained sensitive security information.

"The County has determined that disclosure would be contrary to public interest," Anne Arundel officials wrote in response to a Maryland Public Information Act request. "The disclosure would jeopardize security of buildings, structures, or facilities, may facilitate the planning of a terrorist attack, or may endanger the life or physical safety of an individual."

Debra Gersh Hernandez, who coordinated the national audit, said the point of the exercise was to determine how easy it is "for the average citizen to walk in and request the document that by law they have a right to see."

"I think citizens have a right to know what hazardous materials are in their community," she told the Carroll County Times.

According to the national audit, 44 percent of agencies released the full report. Some had posted the reports online.

But 36 percent of auditors said they were denied access to the documents, while others had to wait days or weeks to see them.

Some officials became alarmed when reporters asked for the emergency response plans. A reporter in Columbus, Ohio, was taking notes in her car after being denied the report when a police officer pulled up and began asking her questions, saying there was a report she had been engaging in suspicious activity, according to the audit.

Armacost said no one had asked to see the emergency response plan before the audit.

When a Sun reporter asked in January to see the plan for Baltimore County, a fire official said county attorneys needed to review it first and that a copy would be available in 30 days.

"We're required to have it vetted by the law" to ensure the county wasn't releasing classified information, said Donald I. Mohler, a spokesman for the administration of County Executive James T. Smith Jr. "I think in this case, there was some concern that there was some classified security information in the document. We'd certainly vet that. You could be a terrorist per se."

Armacost said the reporter would have obtained the document sooner had he gone directly to her instead of asking for it at the front desk of the fire headquarters. She said the problem is not that officials want to withhold information but that many county employees don't know where to refer public information requests.

Mohler said the county government has been planning since last year to give employee seminars on public records laws.

"Your goal as a government, as a public agency, is to be customer service-oriented and to make sure that government feels user-friendly," Mohler said. "Being able to respond in a timely manner to public information requests is part of that."

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