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APphoto_Sunshine Week Editorial Cartoons
(Kevin Siers / AP)

A number of bills before the legislature this session seek to improve government transparency and access to public information. Here’s a look at some of the most interesting.

H.B. 42/S.B. 67: Public Information Act, responses and time limits

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Sponsors: Baltimore County Del. Michele Guyton (D), and Sen. Chris West (R).

Synopsis: Shortens the time limits for state and local government agencies to respond to records requests made under Maryland’s Public Information Act.

Analysis: The current Public Information Act is difficult to follow with seemingly competing timelines throughout, but it’s generally understood to give record holders 10 working days after receiving an inspection request to send an initial response, either providing the information, explaining a delay or denying the request for reasons allowable under law. The agency has up to 30 calendar days to send a final response, though that can be extended another 30 days if the applicant agrees. This bill shortens the initial response time to five days, and the final response time to seven days, with a possible extension of seven days. In the news business, it would seem a no-brainer to just say “Yes! Do it!” But the biggest problem journalists face is not so much the length of the timeline as it is the simple fact that some agencies just don’t comply with the law. The Maryland State Police, for example, only met the initial response deadline 11% of the time, according to a recent PIA report. And denials often feel arbitrary. Still, we understand limited resources, and that turnaround time seems very tight, especially for agencies that get many requests, and it carries significant costs (roughly $2 million per year for the state). Agencies should simply comply with the spirit and letter of the current law, handing over the easy stuff immediately when they can, and following the rules when they can’t.

Editorial board recommendation: Fail.

H.B. 72/ S.B. 123: Video streaming of Maryland Transportation Authority meetings

Sponsors: Montgomery County Dels. Alfred C. Carr Jr., Marc Korman, Sara Love, Ariana Kelly (all Democrats); Anne Arundel Dels. Heather Bagnall (D); Brian Chisholm, Nicholaus Kipke and Sid Saab (Republicans); Prince George’s Dels. Erek Barron and Nick Charles (both Democrats); Baltimore County Del. Harry Bhandari (D); Baltimore and Howard counties Del. Terri Hill (D); Harford Del. Steve Johnson (D); Frederick Dels. Ken Kerr and Karen Lewis Young (both Democrats); Carroll County Del. Susan Krebs (R); Baltimore City Dels. Robbyn Lewis and Samuel Rosenberg (both Democrats); St. Mary’s Del. Matthew Morgan (R); Prince George’s and Anne Arundel Del. Joseline Pena-Melnyk (D); Howard County Del. Shane Pendergrass (D); Cecil and Harford counties Del. Teresa E. Reilly (R); Dorchester and Wicomico counties Del. Sheree Sample-Hughes (D); Baltimore and Harford counties Del. Kathy Szeliga (R). And Sen. Brian Feldman, a Montgomery County Democrat.

Synopsis: Requires the MDTA to stream certain open meetings online and archive them on the internet for at least four years afterward. It also requires MDTA to prepare written minutes of each open meeting.

Analysis: The Maryland Transportation Authority oversees the state’s toll facilities and new transportation projects and should seek public input wide and far. Streaming its meetings comes at a minimal cost (roughly $5,000 in Fiscal Year 2021 to install recording equipment) and could encourage greater understanding of and participation in its process. What’s not to like?

Editorial board recommendation: Pass.

H.B. 401: Open Government, Better Government Act

Sponsors: Democratic Dels. Erek L. Barron (Prince George’s County), Michele Guyton (Baltimore County) and Brooke Lierman (Baltimore City)

Synopsis: Encourages public agencies to “expand remote access to public records and increase the transparency of government;” cuts the fee amount that a records requester can appeal to the compliance board to $200 from $350; and requires agencies to waive fees for members of the news media.

Analysis: Expanding transparency through online posting of information, which House Bill 502 would also do, is almost always a good thing, as is recognizing that $200 is a real hardship for some people. In fact, we’d prefer the appealable amount were reduced to $100. But, and perhaps this will come as a surprise, we don’t think news media should be exempt from paying the same reasonable fees to collect information that the general public must pay. What we object to is the charging of exorbitant fees to block PIA requests and access to public information. Fees should be limited to copying costs. Staff time spent collecting information and redacting records as the law allows should be expected and built into an agency’s budget.

Editorial board recommendation: Fail.

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H.B. 502/S.B. 590: Public Information Act revisions

Sponsors: Baltimore City Del. Brooke E. Lierman and Robbyn Lewis (both Democrats); Prince Goerge’s Del. Erek L. Barron (D); Montgomery County Del. Alfred C. Carr Jr., Bonnie Cullison, Sara Love and David Moon (all Democrats); Frederick and Carroll counties Del. Daniel L. Cox (R); Baltimore County Dels. Robin L. Grammer Jr. (R) and Michele Guyton (D); Baltimore and Howard counties Del. Terri L. Hill (D); Frederick County Del. Ken Kerr (D) and Frederick County Del. Karen Lewis Young (D).

Synopsis: Requires record holders to “adopt a policy of proactive disclosure of public records” by posting Public Information Act responses online along with an annual report regarding compliance. It also gives the state’s PIA Compliance Board the legal power to issue rulings regarding the release of information, subject to judicial review.

Analysis: In the competitive world of journalism, it’s always been considered something of a jerk move for a journalist to file a PIA request with an agency asking to see other PIA requests, piggybacking on the efforts of competing media outlets or individuals in search of information. Still, it’s a smart move. This bill would encourage agencies to put all that information out there without requiring a request (something the Howard County Public School System already does on a very helpful website), and to track how well they meet their public information obligations in the wake of a recent Public Access Ombudsman report that revealed inconsistent data collection and request fulfillment. Giving the board the teeth to adjudicate most PIA disputes that the ombudsman can’t resolve through mediation makes sense and is in line with the legislation that created the board in the first place.

Editorial board recommendation: Pass.

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