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Government transparency job left vacant in Maryland

When a Towson University student journalist asked for emails about how school officials dealt with allegations that someone had videotaped the swim team getting undressed, university officials asked him to pay more than $2,000 for the records request.

The student, Cody Boteler, asked to have the fees waived. When the university did not promptly respond, the senior wrote a scathing editorial in the Towerlight student publication, saying it was "asinine" to ask a student journalist to pay so much.

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It was just the sort of the dispute the state's new public information act ombudsman was supposed to resolve.

But the Maryland attorney general's office hasn't hired one, and Gov. Larry Hogan's administration has yet to authorize funding for the position.

An ombudsman was a key piece of an overhaul to the state's public records law that the legislature passed earlier this year.

Attorney General Brian Frosh's spokesman, David Nitkin, said the office wants to hire an ombudsman now that the law took effect on Oct. 1, but cannot.

Hogan's administration must formally create the job. Eric Shirk, a spokesman for the Department of Budget and Management, said the agency "is reviewing the Attorney General's request and will be making a recommendation soon."

The administration also has not appointed any members to a Public Information Act Compliance Board that is meant to review disputes and offer solutions when fees for public information requests exceed $350. The governor's staff said the administration was actively seeking members for the board.

Advocates who lobbied to pass the first major rewrite to public records laws in more than 40 years say they are frustrated about having to wait for reforms.

"We are concerned that these positions are not moving forward more quickly, but remain optimistic that they will be filled soon," said Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, executive director of Common Cause Maryland.

She said the governor asked her group to recommend people to appoint to the board.

Boteler said this week that Towson University agreed to waive the fees two days after his editorial was posted online and five days after he asked to have them waived.

In an editorial published Wednesday announcing the school's reversal, Boteler suggested he might have gone a different route than public shaming if the waiver had come sooner.

"Had I received a response sooner, my previous editorial would not have been so vivid," he wrote.

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