Getting public records from state agencies was already a hassle in Maryland. Then came the pandemic. Access to public records has slowed considerably since March, when COVID-19 changed the way people work, including at the government agencies that process requests for information, a state ombudsman revealed recently. It is also taking longer to settle disputes.
A quarter of cases involving disputes between agencies and people seeking public records were resolved within three weeks during the first six months of 2020, the ombudsman, Lisa Kershner, said during a legislative hearing. That was a drop from 44% in the prior year. Just 37% were resolved in six weeks, compared to 73% in 2019.
Nearly nine months into the pandemic, this is not acceptable. We understand that early on, life as we know it was turned upside down and everybody had to adjust to a new way of doing things. But it is time to move past the point of adjustment and to fully adapt to the new reality. Just as residents had to resume paying taxes and state emissions inspections have opened, it’s time that agencies resume filling public information requests at a reasonable rate. Let’s not forget the stern lecture Gov. Larry Hogan gave to teachers about getting back in the classroom.
Mike Ricci, a spokesman for the governor’s office said a big challenge is that a lot of the work needs to be done in person at a time the state is encouraging telework. Requesters normally want all records, not just electronic ones, and digitizing hard copies in a searchable format can be a time-consuming task and needs to be done from the office, he said. Working from the home also poses more challenges. Before the pandemic, agencies generally printed out and scanned documents. Now they have to use new software to access email accounts. Even then, converting things to PDF one by one on a computer can be a lot slower than just scanning in a huge stack on a printer. It also takes time to redact personal and sensitive information. The files are also often too big to email. In order for a second person to review them, they have to be sent in batches or uploaded and then downloaded on the cloud, which also takes time because of the size of files. Employees home networks are often slower than at work. Mr. Ricci also contended the slowdown is not in bad faith — people are doing their best. “From the beginning of the pandemic, our office has strongly encouraged agencies to fulfill PIA requests in as timely a fashion as possible, and if necessary, work with requesters on reasonable extensions,” he said.
We appreciate the challenges employees face, but we think many of them can be overcome in this digital age. We also wonder if Governor Hogan’s decision to allow agencies to extend deadlines on a variety of government activities, including records requests, has lessened the incentive to process requests more quickly. Ms. Kershner has said she believes least one agency isn’t filling any requests. So transparency just goes out the door because of a pandemic? Perhaps, the governor should have instead given benchmarks that increase each month on the percentage of requests agencies should fill in a defined time period.
If anything we need transparency now more than ever as the pandemic means government business is being conducted in nontraditional ways, such as through Zoom meetings and emergency spending without the normal checks and balances. Some worry the lack of accountability will be used to get away with big decisions without oversight. One delegate said the legislature is being stonewalled regarding what organizations have received state COVID-19 grants and that literally hundreds of millions in state and federal funds are “flying out with no oversight, no cooperation between the executive and legislature and without bipartisan compromise.”
One accountability proponent also said problematic record keeping she and others have long pointed out has only been exacerbated during the pandemic. Many agencies need to modernize their record keeping for the long term. In the meantime, the state needs to come up with a better way to respond to public information requests and do so now rather than later. The pandemic is not going to end anytime soon and will likely get worse before better. We are already seeing a surge in cases as the winter sick season approaches, and we can’t continue to go along for several more months with lax transparency. That’s not fair to taxpayers, and it’s not responsible governing.
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