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Public information oversight bill called 'important reform'

Government watchdog group Common Cause Maryland and other transparency advocates say they're enthusiastic about proposed General Assembly legislation that would create a panel to oversee public information requests.

Baltimore Del. Jill P. Carter's bill would create an oversight board to which citizens and the media could appeal heavily redacted or denied requests. State law outlines the information available to the public; some items such as personnel reports can be withheld.

Currently, citizens must sue the government in Circuit Court to seek documents if state or local officials do not provide the requested information.

"It's to help us conform with the spirit of the Maryland Public Information Act, which is to give the public access to information it should have," Carter said of the bill. "Court appeals themselves can be cost prohibitive. Appeals shouldn't be so onerous."

Under the legislation, the three-member volunteer panel would be appointed by the governor and consist of at least one lawyer. The board would rule on whether local officials withheld too much information from the public or charged exorbitant fees. The board would have the power to order jurisdictions to release the documents or reduce the fees.

"We are very excited about this important reform," said Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, director of Common Cause Maryland. "It's such a core problem. Typically, the average citizen cannot appeal because the cost of a lawsuit is too high."

Bevan-Dangel believes the bill has been warmly received by Maryland lawmakers.

"The discussion has been very favorable," she said. "I think if we can work out a few issues it does have some traction this year."

Maryland has a similar panel that reviews complaints about government meetings that have been closed to the public. State law limits the conditions for such closures.

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