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Putting the 'public' back in the Public Information Act

The Maryland Public Information Act would be updated. A five-member compliance board would be created to address fee disputes and establish an ombudsman position to handle disagreements between government agencies and members of the public attempting to access records.
The Maryland Public Information Act would be updated. A five-member compliance board would be created to address fee disputes and establish an ombudsman position to handle disagreements between government agencies and members of the public attempting to access records. (Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)

In the last few months, here are some of the things we've learned because of Maryland's Public Information Act:

•Baltimore spent $2.5 million on riot gear in the days before protests over Freddie Gray's death turned violent — including nearly $85,000 in charges for next-day delivery.

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•Police in the city and around the region are contracting with a Chicago company to gather, map and store public social media posts.

•From 2013-2015, Baltimore police failed to forward to the Civilian Review Board two-thirds of the complaints against officers that it should have.

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•Before she suddenly quit her job, the former state Secretary of General Services was assigning state employees to do work related to her graduate studies.

•More than 200 people who signed up to voluntarily ban themselves from Maryland's casinos were caught trying to gamble anyway.

•Baltimore County paid $1.5 million to the mother of a Randallstown teen who died of asphyxiation during an altercation with an off-duty police officer.

•Taxpayers covered about $3,100 in security expenses for Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby to travel around the country for speaking engagements in the months after she indicted six officers in Gray's death.

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•The University of Maryland paid $50,000 to a search firm before hiring new football coach DJ Durkin.

And that's just a sampling of what The Sun has reported based on information provided by government agencies as a result of the law. But for all of the vital information about the public's business we, other media, advocates and ordinary citizens are able to discover under the PIA, government agencies have all too often stymied public access through delays, unnecessary redactions and excessive fees.

Fortunately, the General Assembly took significant steps forward to modernize and improve the PIA last year. It established a Public Information Act Compliance Board, which handles disputes over fees; authorized the hiring of a PIA ombudsman in the attorney general's office to try to mediate other disputes; standardized fees for vetting and reproducing documents and clarified the timelines for responses.

The law requires Attorney General Brian E. Frosh to prepare a report on its implementation and effects. The report will include an analysis of exemptions to the law and of requests for information denied by state agencies, and it will consider issues including whether the compliance board should be authorized to award damages in a dispute and the circumstances in which fee waivers are granted. To assist in the task, Mr. Frosh's office worked with the Maryland, Delaware, DC Press Association, the Maryland Association of Counties, the Maryland Municipal League, Common Cause and others to develop a survey for both those who request information under the law and those who respond to requests on behalf of state agencies. The deadline is Sunday, and we urge all those who have experiences with the law — good, bad or ugly — to participate.

The survey is anonymous and takes about 15 minutes to complete. It asks slightly different questions of custodians of information and of those who request it, and some of the information — like the specifics of exemptions that have been used to deny a respondent's PIA request — might require some advance preparation. Because the survey must be completed in one sitting, the AG's office recommends reading the instructions first. They are available on the press association's website. The survey itself is at surveymonkey.com/r/AG_PIA.

So far, participation in the survey has been fairly balanced between those who respond to requests and those who make them, but, oddly, the group that relies most heavily on the PIA — journalists — has been under-represented. Because reporters tend to have wider experiences in making requests, their perspective is particularly valuable. We urge our fellow newspaper, television, radio and digital reporters to take a few minutes to complete the survey.

Mr. Frosh's report will likely serve as the basis for debate about Maryland's Public Information Act for years to come. Last year's reforms were long overdue, and the question of whether we have to wait decades longer to strengthen them (or, worse yet, see those gains reversed) depends on the quantity and quality of information Mr. Frosh's office gets. We have a right to know what the government is doing in our names and with our tax dollars, and this survey is a crucial tool to make sure we do.

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