State agencies in Maryland are struggling to handle thousands of public records requests from reporters, attorneys and other members of the public and lack consistent policies for complying with the state disclosure law, according to a survey by the state’s public access ombudsman.
Several of the 23 cabinet-level agencies that responded to the survey said they lacked policies for retaining certain kinds of records that are covered by the Maryland Public Information Act, such as emails and text messages, and many said they need more training and resources to meet the law’s retention and timely disclosure mandates.
The agencies reported receiving nearly 10,000 requests in fiscal 2019. Those that tracked their responses reported disclosing records in more than half of the requests, but denying records in many others and often failing to respond to requests within the time frame prescribed by the law. Agencies that received a large volume of requests said they were overwhelmed by the associated workload — and warned against any expanded disclosure requirements without attached funding.
“The department welcomes any measures which would allow us to increase transparency; however, without designated Public Information Act units, employees are already being split between jobs and facing time barriers,” wrote the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, which runs the state’s prisons and jails.
The Department of the Environment, which estimated it alone received between 4,000 and 5,000 requests — the most of any agency — failed to track data showing the disposition of those cases. Calling the requests an “extremely large burden on the department financially and operationally,” it requested more training, better software for tracking responses and the ability to “hire additional employees and to increase salaries of existing PIA personnel in an effort to retain them.”
Excluding the Department of Environment and the Department of Budget and Management, which did not track any data, the remaining 21 agencies received 5,521 records requests, of which 2,410 resulted in records being fully disclosed. In other cases, records did not exist, were fully denied or partially redacted.
Agencies provided the required initial response within 10 days in less than half of the cases.
The survey responses — obtained by The Baltimore Sun through, what else, a records request — don’t paint a full picture of the law’s application.
The state cabinet-level agencies submitted incomplete data, in part for a lack of tracking it, and a vast array of local agencies that are subject to the law and receive large numbers of requests under it, such as the Baltimore Police Department, did not participate.
Still, backers of the survey said they hope it will help provide one of the clearest pictures to date of how the public records law is being applied in the state, and inform improvements to the law moving forward.
“The report is not intended to be all encompassing, but it will provide an important start for reviewing the efficacy of the current PIA system that we have in Maryland,” said Del. Brooke Lierman, the Baltimore Democrat who shepherded language mandating the survey and a report on the findings into state budget language last legislative session.
The ombudsman’s office, which is housed within the office of Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh, continues to seek feedback from other stakeholders under the law, including reporters, and to compile the data into a final report due to the legislature by December 31.
Public Access Ombudsman Lisa Kershner declined to comment. But her office and the PIA Compliance Board previously said they are considering recommending that lawmakers give the compliance board the authority to issue binding decisions in PIA disputes in order to address “a very real need” among agencies and those who request documents for "an accessible enforcement remedy as an alternative to going to court.”
Lierman agreed the law needs some enhancement.
“There are advocacy groups, reporters, members of the public who are having a very difficult time accessing information that should be publicly available. On the flip side, some agencies are feeling very challenged to respond to the level of PIA requests they are receiving,” Lierman said. “It’s my hope that the ombudsman report will provide an overview of the challenges and opportunities to strengthen the PIA law in Maryland to increase transparency and accountability of our agencies.”
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