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BWI's fare for public information: $8,500

A labor union seeking information from Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport under Maryland's Public Information Act has been handed an $8,500 bill for the data — an amount it calls "outrageous" and prohibitive."

UniteHere, a union seeking to organize workers at BWI businesses, put in a request Feb. 1 for information on the relationship between the Maryland Aviation Administration's management and AirMall USA, the company that holds a lucrative contract to manage the retail and restaurant concessions at the airport.

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After the agency sought $8,500 up front and said delivery would take 30 days, 16 lawmakers wrote a sternly-worded letter to BWI chief executive Ricky D. Smith Sr. Thursday demanding that he hand over the records to the General Assembly.

"The credibility of the MAA's assertion that such documents are contained on 'archived tapes' is highly questionable," the lawmakers wrote. "The MAA's response is not in the spirit of open government."

The union's request sought a broad array of records, including paper copies and public records requests the agency might have received from industry lobbyists. The request also sought AirMall-related emails from certain BWI officials, including Smith and former executive director Paul Wiedefeld.

Dale Hilliard, Smith's chief of staff and one of the other officials whose emails were requested, put the cost of gathering the information at about $8,500 "due to the costs of retrieving electronic records from storage."

The letter did not make any distinction between paper records and electronic records.

"More than half the records are not electronic so what's the holdup?" said Adam Yelowitz, who made the request on behalf of UniteHere. "It flies in the face of good and open government,"

Yelowitz said the union would appeal the charge to the Public Information Act Compliance Board in the Attorney General's Office. The board was created in legislation the General Assembly enacted last year to discourage agencies from charging excessive fees.

Union Local 7 President Roxie Herbekian also wrote to Attorney General Brian E. Frosh, seeking his opinion of the agency's action. Herbekian noted that the union requested no records dated before Jan. 1, 2015 and questioned how they could be in archives that need a technician to produce.

Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, said BWI's decision could become one of the first cases to come before the compliance board, which held its first meeting Wednesday.

Bevan-Dangel said the practice of charging an up-front fee to receive public information "absolutely has a chilling effect."

"These high fees are used to avoid having to turn over the documents. Very few groups can afford to pay them," she said.

UnitedHere has long been at odds with airport management over policies it believes make it difficult for the union to sign up members at companies that operate concessions at BWI under the AirMall contract.

The union is supporting legislation that would force Smith to open the contract for new bidding in 2017. Smith has said he has no intention of doing so. AirMall's contract ends in 2022 unless the state exercises an option next year.

While the House hearing is scheduled Friday, a Senate committee plans to consider the legislation next Thursday. In their letter, the senators and delegates — all Democrats — said the legislature needs the documents as soon as possible.

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The legislators cited a state regulation that reads: "It is the policy of the [Transportation] Department to facilitate public access to the records of the Department when access is allowed by law by minimizing costs and time delays to persons requesting information."

Jonathan Dean, spokesman for BWI, said the fees are not influenced by the airport's relationship with the union.

"The fees are rather standard costs associated with the general retrieval and review of extensive records and documents," Dean said. "These are appropriate and reasonable fees for fulfilling such information requests.'

Dean said the agency is sticking to its position that the costs should apply to retrieval of the paper documents as well as the emails.

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