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MTA's denial of public records rebuked, reversed by transportation secretary

Maryland's new transportation director pushed for more transparency from MTA.

Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn struck a blow for increased transparency within his department last week — Sunshine Week, as it happens — when he rebuked the Maryland Transit Administration for withholding public records and initiated their release.

The 156 pages of documents were related to the MTA's Bus Network Improvement Project, which is nearly a year late in producing a plan for improving the agency's Baltimore-area bus system.

On Dec. 29, The Baltimore Sun asked the MTA for all emails that were sent or received during the preceeding six months by MTA Administrator Robert L. Smith and that mentioned the words "bus network" or the project's acronym, "BNIP."

The request through the Maryland Public Information Act also sought all documents attached to or referenced in those emails.

Under state law, government agencies are supposed to provide requested public documents, such as officials' emails, within 30 days. The MTA did not, instead requesting multiple extensions.

On Monday, the agency produced 108 pages of emails and attached documents — mostly innocuous messages about meeting times and public relations messaging — with a cover letter stating that an undisclosed number of documents had been withheld under "executive" and "deliberative process" privileges.

The documents were withheld wholely, rather than redacted to exclude privileged material, and the Sun raised objections to the response of the agency, which is part of the Department of Transportation.

Within days, Rahn called The Sun to apologize for the handling of the request, including the delay in meeting it, and said more documents would be forthcoming.

"You should be getting what you requested and more, if necessary," Rahn said. "I expect that when these requests come in, that we would respond very quickly."

Soon after, the MTA released the documents denied under The Sun's initial request.

A large amount of information was still redacted, including all proposals for bus route changes and any mention of costs associated with the changes.

However, the new documents did make clear that delays in the MTA project were partly the result of political considerations, while providing information on various proposals and the timeline for implementation.

The timing was perfect for Sunshine Week, a national initiative by news media, civic groups and others to stress the importance of open government and freedom of information.

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