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Open government supporters push for public records update

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — When Maryland adopted its public information policy 45 years ago, email hadn't been invented yet, commercial laser printers were being refined for the market and the ink on the federal Freedom of Information Act was barely dry.

On Tuesday open government advocates began their push to update the Maryland Public Information Act of 1970.

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"Democracy is built on transparency," said Sen. Jamie Raskin, D-Montgomery County, who is sponsoring the bill. "We've got a good law but it hasn't been updated in four decades."

The bill would establish a governor-appointed compliance board to review and resolve public records complaints. The board could order records to be released, reduce fees and make recommendations to the governor and General Assembly.

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At least one member of the board would represent a non-governmental, nonprofit group, while another member must be a part of the Maryland State Bar Association.

"We don't spell out who the third person will be," said Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, during a Tuesday press conference call. "The board needs to reflect geographic and political diversity and have at least one lawyer and one member of the nonprofit community."

The announcement of the bill was hosted by Marylanders for Open Government, a coalition of pro-transparency organizations that say too often government agencies use high fees or hide behind out-of-date language to avoid filling requests — or completely ignore them.

"This bill is an attempt to package a set of reforms to create a culture of change," Bevan-Dangel said.

Last session a bill stalled that called for a study by the Joint Committee on Transparency and Open Government on improvements to appeals under the information act.

Capping fees and closing loopholes are other aims of the current proposed legislation.

The current fee structure is based on the number and type of copies requested, the salary grade of the employee handling the information request and time it takes to search for the requested information. The bill would require that noncommercial information requests be filled by the person with the lowest salary grade available. The information act also provides two hours of information searching at no charge. The bill would increase that time to five hours.

The fees would only apply to the "actual cost of production" of the information, Bevan-Dangel said.

The bill also outlines monetary penalties for state agencies that deny information and also shifts the burden of proof for a denial to the agency, Bevan-Dangel said, "to show the public good is truly being outweighed by the personal harm they're using to justify not sharing the information."

Del. Bonnie Cullison, D-Montgomery County, and co-sponsor of the bill, said Maryland residents should be able to access public information, "so that they are totally informed about what their government is doing, how it's working, and so that they can give us feedback and input. They can only do that when they have information."

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