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Democratic lawmakers in Annapolis have filed three separate bills aimed at strengthening the state’s public records law, which is used by journalists, attorneys and other members of the public to access government documents at the state and local levels. This file photo shows the House of Delegates.
Democratic lawmakers in Annapolis have filed three separate bills aimed at strengthening the state’s public records law, which is used by journalists, attorneys and other members of the public to access government documents at the state and local levels. This file photo shows the House of Delegates. (Paul W. Gillespie / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Democratic lawmakers in Annapolis have filed three separate bills aimed at strengthening the state’s public records law, which is used by journalists, attorneys, inmates and other members of the public to access government documents at the state and local levels.

One bill seeks to give more enforcement power to an oversight panel created in 2015 during the last major overhaul of the Maryland Public Information Act, and to force agencies to better track their compliance.

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That bill, introduced by Democratic Del. Brooke Lierman of Baltimore, would require agencies to adopt policies “of proactive disclosure of public records,” including by posting previously requested documents and compliance data on their websites. It also would give the state’s PIA Compliance Board the authority to make binding decisions on the release of documents by agencies, subject to judicial review.

Currently, records disputes can be mediated by the public access ombudsman, but her recommendations carry no legal weight. The board only adjudicates fee disputes.

Lierman’s proposals match recommendations made by the board and ombudsman in a recent report to the legislature, which they produced after a study found that state agencies in Maryland are struggling to handle thousands of records requests and lack consistent policies for complying with the state disclosure law.

Lisa Kershner, the ombudsman, said in a statement that “providing the board with comprehensive jurisdiction in this way is expected to improve the PIA dispute-resolution process by both enhancing the ombudsman’s mediation program, and by providing an accessible administrative process for reviewing and deciding matters that can’t be solved through mediation alone.”

Lierman said she was inspired to file her bill to “bring more sunlight to all government work in Maryland” after hearing frustrations from document seekers and reviewing the ombudsman’s report.

“For years, I have received complaints from constituents and monitored the frustration of members of the press corps who have been unable to access information that should be public," Lierman said in a statement to The Baltimore Sun. “Transparency in government is integral to having an informed public, and an informed public is critical to a functioning representative democracy.”

Separately, Del. Erek Barron, a Prince George’s County Democrat, has introduced a second bill that also would require agencies to post more records online. His bill would more explicitly define what judicial records are subject to release under the law, reduce the minimum fee that can be appealed to the compliance board from $350 to $200, and mandate that agencies waive fees for members of the media. The judicial records include policies, procedures and plans related to the administration of state courts.

Del. Michele Guyton, a Baltimore County Democrat, has introduced a third bill that would substantially reduce the amount of time agencies have to acknowledge and fulfill records requests. It would cut the time to provide an initial response from 10 to five days, and the time to fulfill requests from 30 to seven days.

Lierman’s bill has the support of Barron and Guyton, as well as other lawmakers. Lierman and Guyton both back Barron’s bill, too. Guyton’s bill did not have co-sponsors as of Thursday, but Republican Sen. Chris West of Baltimore County had filed the corresponding legislation in his chamber.

Both Lierman and Guyton’s bills are scheduled for a hearing Feb. 11 before the House Health and Government Operations Committee. Barron’s bill is scheduled for a Judiciary Committee hearing on Feb. 12.

The Public Information Act is relied upon by a range of people to access records.

For instance, since 2016, Kershner’s ombudsman’s office has received more than 1,400 requests for mediation or other assistance. Of those requests, 40% came from individual residents, 22% from inmates, 18% from members of the media, 9% from “advocates,” 7% from attorneys and 4% from businesses and corporations.

Rebecca Snyder, executive director of the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association, which represents The Baltimore Sun and other media in Annapolis, said she is tracking the legislation.

“We’re always excited to see energy around improving the PIA and access to public records for all Marylanders,” she said. “Each of these bills takes an important step forward for improving access to public records in terms of timelines, enforcement and ability of the compliance board to issue opinions and precedent."

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Snyder said Barron’s effort to bring judicial records more clearly under the fold in the public records law is important.

“We certainly feel like there needs to be more transparency in the court system,” she said. “All branches of government deserve to be scrutinized with the same level of transparency.”

But she said she is most excited about Lierman’s bill, because she believes it will hold agencies accountable by giving the compliance panel more power to require the release of records and force agencies to waive fees if they don’t meet deadlines. Without such accountability, Snyder said, it doesn’t matter what else is in the law.

“If it’s not enforced, if people keep blowing past their deadlines, they’re basically meaningless,” she said.

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