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Transparency still lacking in Md. government

Maryland's citizens have the right to know how government transacts business on their behalf. To help set this culture of openness, Maryland legislators created the Public Information Act in 1970, followed by the Open Meetings Act in 1977. There are two volunteer boards that provide an outlet for citizen complaints relating to these acts and serve as an alternate or intermediate step before a dispute is taken to court. The Open Meetings Compliance Board (OMCB) was refreshed with new board members in 2015 and issues non-binding advisory opinions. Members of the newly-created Public Information Act Compliance Board (PIACB) were appointed in Spring 2016. That board reviews complaints regarding fees over $350 for information under the Public Information Act.

Both compliance boards recently issued annual reports. The OMCB received more complaints (41 this year) and issued more opinions than in previous years. The first year for the PIACB saw five members appointed and nine complaints submitted, with five opinions issued. Both boards have committed, active volunteer members who take open government issues seriously.

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However, the advice provided by the opinions shows that there is significant progress to be made regarding government transparency in Maryland. The compliance boards have limited jurisdiction and no ability to compel government to release information or to open meetings. However, the compliance boards are making the most of their purview.

In reading the opinions referred to within the annual report, the OMCB often urges public bodies to consider not only the letter of the law, but the public's perception of openness in transacting public business. In several instances, as a result of the complaints filed, Maryland's public bodies have changed their practices to become more transparent or to remove the perception of wrongdoing. For instance, Maryland Economic Development Assistance Authority and Fund will now adopt minutes by email when there is no meeting scheduled for the next month. The Prince George's County Local Development Council now has an email subscription list to notify interested members of the public of its meetings.

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These and other instances are commendable, yet they are balanced by instances in which the public body did not even respond to inquiries by the OMCB, or has been cited multiple times for similar violations. There are many instances in the opinions in which the board members note that the same or similar issue has been addressed with the same public body previously. Some public bodies never seem to learn, or care, about investing citizens in public business. Taking into account that the OMCB hears only the complaints that someone has taken the time to write up and file, Maryland's public often may be turned away or unaware of meetings.

The Public Information Act Compliance Board is newly formed. In its first report, members noted that their jurisdiction is targeted only to assessing the reasonableness of fees over $350. Several complainants were turned away because their issue concerned fee waivers and were referred to the new Public Access Ombudsman. The PIACB felt the ombudsman "provided extraordinary service to the public" and the office is invaluable in working to resolve disputes between sequesters and records custodians. The small number of opinions issued (two of substance and three citing the complaint as outside the board's jurisdiction) is most likely due to the introduction of this concept to the general public.

Already, the PIACB sees room for improvement. For instance, the board seeks a legislative tweak in clarifying "that charges for duplicate reviews [of requested material] are not permitted, or are permitted only for specific legitimate purposes." Further, the board puzzled over delays in response times and noted that "the law should ensure that records are produced as quickly as possible and without undue delay." Further, they noted that "some custodians view the 30 days as the standard and do not provide records sooner than 30 days, even when the materials are readily available." The board suggested that 15-day intervals in cases where the substance of the request is unchanged, instead of the prescribed 30-day intervals, would allow information to be shared more quickly.

We look to the attorney general's interim report, slated to be released at the end of the year, to better understand how citizens and journalists view these boards and what can be done to make them more effective. The real answer here may be to invest the compliance boards with enforceable powers and the ability to levy fees for repeated violations, moving them beyond the power of suggestion and opinion.

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Rebecca Snyder is executive director of the Maryland, Delaware, D.C. Press Association (The Baltimore Sun is a member.); her email is rsnyder@mddcpress.com.

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