State lawmakers are weighing the biggest-ever rewrite of Maryland's public records laws.

A compromise proposal pending in a Senate committee would for the first time allow the public to appeal decisions to withhold information — and the fees charged to view it — without having to take the government to court.


"Democracy depends on information," said Sen. Jamie Raskin, the bill's sponsor. "When the law passed 45 years ago, it was a landmark. It hasn't been updated in decades."

In the intervening years, proponents say, government agencies have developed a reluctance to release documents in a timely manner and can charge thousands of dollars to search for records.

"That's what we're seeking: a culture shift," said Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, executive director of Common Cause Maryland.

This is Sunshine Week, a movement to educate the public about the importance of open government.

Maryland's law governs how government agencies release public documents, including minutes of public meetings and emails among politicians. Businesses, nonprofits, media outlets, advocacy groups, political campaigns and research institutions use the law to access public information.

A coalition of such groups has backed a bill sponsored by Raskin and Del. Bonnie Cullison, both Montgomery County Democrats, that would change how disputes over applying the law are resolved, as well as set lower fees for searching and copying public documents. The Baltimore Sun is part of a press association that supports the bill.

Under current law, the government has wide leeway to apply exemptions to the law and to set reasonable fees to retrieve and copy documents.

"That 'reasonable' umbrella has been stretched pretty far," Raskin said.

In practice, some agencies have charged 75 cents per page for photocopies and $50 an hour for attorneys to review documents before releasing them. The only way to object is to file a lawsuit against the government.

The family of a Baltimore teenager electrocuted during a softball game at Druid Hill Park was among those asking lawmakers for help. Deanna Camille Green died in 2004 after touching a fence in contact with an electrical wire. Her parents lobbied successfully for a law that requires the Maryland Public Service Commission to take steps to reduce such contact voltage cases. They wanted to see how the law was working and made a public records request last year.

The day they were to receive the documents, the Public Service Commission charged them $6,899.64 to continue searching. Three months later, the request still has not been fulfilled, the family's lawyer told lawmakers this month.

"Our continuing, frustrating experience ... underscores the compelling need for the reforms," attorney Stanley W. Balis wrote to lawmakers.

The compromise plan to rewrite the Public Information Act could be up for a vote in the Senate's Environmental Health and Education Committee as soon as Friday.

Under the plan, the bill would create an ombudsman in the Maryland attorney general's office who would mediate disputes between the government and the public.


Candace L. Donoho of the Maryland Municipal League said such an arrangement would be "equally beneficial" to the public and to cities, which can be bombarded with overly broad requests for information that take hours of staff time.

Although the ombudsman's decisions would not be legally binding, the process would enable the public and the government to resolve disputes without a courtroom.

A separate five-member compliance board would review complaints about government fees of $250 or more. The bill would require governments to charge what it costs to copy and review documents, doing away with the vague "reasonable" standard.

The compromise replaces Raskin and Cullison's original proposal to create a compliance board that could force government agencies to respond to records requests. The original plan met with stiff resistance from the Maryland Municipal League and the Maryland Association of Counties, the state's sheriffs and police chiefs, who argued that the proposal went too far.

The compromise includes a 2016 study of how well the ombudsman process works.

"We need to take small steps and see how much further we can go," Cullison said. Even with the compromise, she said, "We're going to take what I think is a pretty giant step toward more transparency."