Putting the ‘pub­lic’ back in the PIA

Our view: A state sur­vey of­fers a chance to en­sure ac­cess to pub­lic in­for­ma­tion

Baltimore Sun - - FROM PAGE ONE -

In the last few months, here are some of the things we’ve learned be­cause of Mary­land’s Pub­lic In­for­ma­tion Act: Bal­ti­more spent $2.5 mil­lion on riot gear in the days be­fore protests over Fred­die Gray’s death turned vi­o­lent — in­clud­ing nearly $85,000 in charges for next-day de­liv­ery.

Po­lice in the city and around the re­gion are con­tract­ing with a Chicago com­pany to gather, map and store pub­lic so­cial me­dia posts.

Dur­ing 2013-2015, Bal­ti­more po­lice failed to for­ward to the Civil­ian Re­view Board two-thirds of the com­plaints against of­fi­cers that it should have.

Be­fore she sud­denly quit her job, the for­mer state sec­re­tary of gen­eral ser­vices was as­sign­ing state em­ploy­ees to do work re­lated to her grad­u­ate stud­ies.

More than 200 peo­ple who signed up to vol­un­tar­ily ban them­selves from Mary­land’s casi­nos were caught try­ing to gam­ble any­way.

Bal­ti­more County paid $1.5 mil­lion to the mother of a Ran­dall­stown teen who died of as­phyx­i­a­tion dur­ing an al­ter­ca­tion with an off-duty po­lice of­fi­cer.

Tax­pay­ers cov­ered about $3,100 in se­cu­rity ex­penses for Bal­ti­more State’s At­tor­ney Mar­i­lyn Mosby to travel around the coun­try for speak­ing en­gage­ments in the months af­ter she in­dicted six of­fi­cers in Gray’s death.

The Univer­sity of Mary­land paid $50,000 to a search firm be­fore hir­ing new foot­ball coach DJ Durkin.

And that’s just a sam­pling of what The Sun has re­ported based on in­for­ma­tion pro­vided by gov­ern­ment agen­cies as a re­sult of the law. But for all of the vi­tal in­for­ma­tion about the pub­lic’s busi­ness we, other me­dia, ad­vo­cates and or­di­nary cit­i­zens are able to dis­cover un­der the PIA, gov­ern­ment agen­cies have all too of­ten stymied pub­lic ac­cess through de­lays, un­nec­es­sary redac­tions and ex­ces­sive fees.

For­tu­nately, the Gen­eral As­sem­bly took sig­nif­i­cant steps for­ward to mod­ern­ize and im­prove the PIA last year. It es­tab­lished a Pub­lic In­for­ma­tion Act Com­pli­ance Board, which han­dles dis­putes over fees; au­tho­rized the hir­ing of a PIA om­buds­man in the at­tor­ney gen­eral’s of­fice to try to me­di­ate other dis­putes; stan­dard­ized fees for vet­ting and re­pro­duc­ing doc­u­ments and clar­i­fied the time­lines for re­sponses.

The law re­quires At­tor­ney Gen­eral Brian E. Frosh to pre­pare a re­port on its im­ple­men­ta­tion and ef­fects. To as­sist in the task, Mr. Frosh’s of­fice worked with the Mary­land, Delaware, DC Press As­so­ci­a­tion, the Mary­land As­so­ci­a­tion of Coun­ties, the Mary­land Mu­nic­i­pal League, Com­monCause and oth­ers to de­velop a sur­vey for both those who re­quest in­for­ma­tion un­der the law and those who re­spond to re­quests on be­half of state agen­cies. The dead­line is Sun­day, and we urge all those who have ex­pe­ri­ences with the law — good, bad or ugly — to par­tic­i­pate.

The sur­vey is anony­mous and takes about 15 min­utes to com­plete. It asks slightly dif­fer­ent ques­tions of cus­to­di­ans of in­for­ma­tion and of those who re­quest it, and some of the in­for­ma­tion — like the specifics of ex­emp­tions that have been used to deny a re­spon­dent’s PIA re­quest — might re­quire some ad­vance prepa­ra­tion. Be­cause the sur­vey must be com­pleted in one sit­ting, the AG’s of­fice rec­om­mends read­ing the in­struc­tions first. They are avail­able on the press as­so­ci­a­tion’s web­site, md­d­c­press.com. The sur­vey it­self is at sur­vey­mon­key.com/r/AG_PIA.

So far, par­tic­i­pa­tion in the sur­vey has been fairly bal­anced be­tween those who re­spond to re­quests and those who make them, but, oddly, the group that re­lies most heav­ily on the PIA — jour­nal­ists — has been un­der-rep­re­sented. Be­cause re­porters tend to have wider ex­pe­ri­ences in mak­ing re­quests, their per­spec­tive is par­tic­u­larly valu­able. We urge our fel­low news­pa­per, tele­vi­sion, ra­dio and dig­i­tal re­porters to take a few min­utes to com­plete the sur­vey.

Mr. Frosh’s re­port will likely serve as the ba­sis for de­bate about Mary­land’s Pub­lic In­for­ma­tion Act for years to come. Last year’s re­forms were long over­due, and the ques­tion of whether we have to wait decades longer to strengthen them (or, worse yet, see those gains re­versed) de­pends on the quan­tity and qual­ity of in­for­ma­tion Mr. Frosh’s of­fice gets. We have a right to know what the gov­ern­ment is do­ing in our names and with our tax dol­lars, and this sur­vey is a cru­cial tool to make sure we do.

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