Environmental advocates have been working to update Maryland's 45-year old Public Information Act through state legislation ("Senate OKs rewrite of public information law," March 24). There is certainly plenty of room for improvement — Maryland received an "F" in government transparency from the State Integrity Project. The new legislation creates better oversight, tightens timelines to respond to public information requests and requires proper justification for denials.
Clean water and clean air advocates have been stymied when requesting information from state or local governments — but we're not the only ones.
I testified in support of this legislation alongside newspaper editors, government watchdog groups, social justice organizations and private citizens. The only organizations that testified publicly in opposition to the bill were the Maryland Farm Bureau and the Maryland Grain Producers. Why do they oppose common sense reforms to Maryland's public information law?
The agriculture industry — the largest polluter to the Chesapeake Bay — receives special treatment under existing law. For instance, information about state-required pollution plans for many farms are kept secret, hidden from Maryland taxpayers, along with enforcement records for these farms. State governments invest millions of dollars to reduce pollution from farms and we deserve some level of accountability to ensure that funding is being well spent. Unfortunately, the powerful corporate agriculture lobby was successfully able to strip any provisions relating to agricultural transparency out of the legislation.
The amended legislation moving through the General Assembly is still critically important because it will make it easier for Marylanders to get public information they deserve to see. The bill improves a law that hasn't been updated since Marvin Mandel was governor. But it won't fix everything that is wrong with government transparency in the Free State. Open government advocates will continue working to shine a light on public information to get better access and accountability from all industries that pollute our environment — no exceptions or exemptions.
Betsy Nicholas, Takoma Park
The writer is executive director of Waterkeepers Chesapeake and a member of Maryland Clean Agriculture Coalition.