Trans­parency still lack­ing in Maryland

Baltimore Sun - - COMMENTARY - By Re­becca Sny­der Re­becca Sny­der is ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Maryland, Delaware, D.C. Press As­so­ci­a­tion (The Bal­ti­more Sun is a mem­ber); her email is rsny­der@md­d­c­press.com.

Maryland’s cit­i­zens have the right to know how gov­ern­ment trans­acts busi­ness on their be­half. To help set this cul­ture of open­ness, Maryland leg­is­la­tors cre­ated the Public In­for­ma­tion Act in 1970, fol­lowed by the Open Meet­ings Act in 1977. There are two vol­un­teer boards that pro­vide an out­let for cit­i­zen com­plaints re­lat­ing to these acts and serve as an al­ter­nate or in­ter­me­di­ate step be­fore a dis­pute is taken to court. The Open Meet­ings Com­pli­ance Board (OMCB) was re­freshed with new­board mem­bers in 2015 and is­sues non-bind­ing ad­vi­sory opin­ions. Mem­bers of the newly-cre­ated Public In­for­ma­tion Act Com­pli­ance Board (PIACB) were ap­pointed in Spring 2016. That board re­views com­plaints re­gard­ing fees over $350 for in­for­ma­tion un­der the Public In­for­ma­tion Act.

Both com­pli­ance boards re­cently is­sued an­nual re­ports. The OMCB re­ceived more com­plaints (41 this year) and is­sued more opin­ions than in pre­vi­ous years. The first year for the PIACB saw five mem­bers ap­pointed and nine com­plaints sub­mit­ted, with five opin­ions is­sued. Both boards have com­mit­ted, ac­tive vol­un­teer mem­bers who take open gov­ern­ment is­sues se­ri­ously.

How­ever, the ad­vice pro­vided by the opin­ions shows that there is sig­nif­i­cant progress to be made re­gard­ing gov­ern­ment trans­parency in Maryland. The com­pli­ance boards have lim­ited ju­ris­dic­tion and no abil­ity to com­pel gov­ern­ment to re­lease in­for­ma­tion or to open meet­ings. How­ever, the com­pli­ance boards are mak­ing the most of their purview.

In read­ing the opin­ions re­ferred to within the an­nual re­port, the OMCB of­ten urges public bod­ies to con­sider not only the let­ter of the law, but the public’s per­cep­tion of open­ness in trans­act­ing public busi­ness. In sev­eral in­stances, as a re­sult of the com­plaints filed, Maryland’s public bod­ies have changed their prac­tices to be­come more trans­par­ent or to re­move the per­cep­tion of wrong­do­ing. For in­stance, Maryland Eco­nomic Devel­op­ment As­sis­tance Au­thor­ity and Fund will now adopt min­utes by email when there is no meet­ing sched­uled for the next month. The Prince Ge­orge’s County Lo­cal Devel­op­ment Coun­cil now has an email sub­scrip­tion list to no­tify in­ter­ested mem­bers of the public of its meet­ings.

These and other in­stances are com­mend­able, yet they are bal­anced by in­stances in which the public body did not even re­spond to in­quiries by the OMCB, or has been cited mul­ti­ple times for sim­i­lar vi­o­la­tions. There are many in­stances in the opin­ions in which the board mem­bers note that the same or sim­i­lar is­sue has been ad­dressed with the same public body pre­vi­ously. Some public bod­ies never seem to learn, or care, about in­vest­ing cit­i­zens in public busi­ness. Tak­ing into ac­count that the OMCB hears only the com­plaints that some­one has taken the time to write up and file, Maryland’s public of­ten may be turned away or unaware of meet­ings.

The Public In­for­ma­tion Act Com­pli­ance Board is newly formed. In its first re­port, mem­bers noted that their ju­ris­dic­tion is tar­geted only to as­sess­ing the rea­son­able­ness of fees over $350. Sev­eral com­plainants were turned away be­cause their is­sue con­cerned fee waivers and were re­ferred to the new Public Ac­cess Om­buds­man. The PIACB felt the om­buds­man “pro­vided ex­tra­or­di­nary ser­vice to the public” and the of­fice is in­valu­able in work­ing to re­solve dis­putes be­tween se­questers and records cus­to­di­ans. The small num­ber of opin­ions is­sued (two of sub­stance and three cit­ing the com­plaint as out­side the board’s ju­ris­dic­tion) is most likely due to the in­tro­duc­tion of this con­cept to the gen­eral public.

Al­ready, the PIACB sees room for im­prove­ment. For in­stance, the board seeks a leg­isla­tive tweak in clar­i­fy­ing “that charges for du­pli­cate re­views [of re­quested ma­te­rial] are not per­mit­ted, or are per­mit­ted only for spe­cific le­git­i­mate pur­poses.” Fur­ther, the board puz­zled over de­lays in re­sponse times and noted that “the law should en­sure that records are pro­duced as quickly as pos­si­ble and with­out un­due de­lay.” Fur­ther, they noted that “some cus­to­di­ans view the 30 days as the stan­dard and do not pro­vide records sooner than 30 days, even when the ma­te­ri­als are read­ily avail­able.” The board sug­gested that 15-day in­ter­vals in cases where the sub­stance of the re­quest is un­changed, in­stead of the pre­scribed 30-day in­ter­vals, would al­low in­for­ma­tion to be shared more quickly.

We look to the at­tor­ney gen­eral’s in­terim re­port, slated to be re­leased at the end of the year, to bet­ter un­der­stand how cit­i­zens and jour­nal­ists view these boards and what can be done to make them more ef­fec­tive. The real an­swer here may be to in­vest the com­pli­ance boards with en­force­able pow­ers and the abil­ity to levy fees for re­peated vi­o­la­tions, mov­ing them be­yond the power of sug­ges­tion and opin­ion.

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