Com­mu­nity voice: Strengthen light in Mary­land

Cecil Whig - - OPINION - Com­mu­nity Voice By FROM: RE­BECCA SNY­DER

An­napo­lis

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 was re­freshed with new board mem­bers in 2015, and is­sues non-bind­ing ad­vi­sory opin­ions. Mem­bers of the newly-cre­ated Pub­lic In­for­ma­tion Act Com­pli­ance Board 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 Open Meet­ings Com­pli­ance Board re­ceived more com­plaints — 41 this year — and is­sued more opin­ions than in pre­vi­ous years. The first year for the Pub­lic In­for­ma­tion Act Com­pli­ance Board 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 Open Meet­ings Com­pli­ance Board 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 bal­anced by in­stances where the pub­lic body did not even re­spond to in­quiries by the Open Meet­ings Com­pli­ance Board, or has been cited mul­ti­ple times for sim­i­lar vi­o­la­tions. There are many in­stances in the opin­ions where 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 Com­pli­ance Board 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 (PIACB) is newly formed. In its first re­port, it 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 Board felt the om­buds­man “pro­vided ex­tra­or­di­nary ser­vice to the pub­lic” and the of­fice is in­valu­able in work­ing to re­solve dis­putes be­tween re­questors 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.

Re­becca Sny­der is the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Mary­land, Delaware, and Wash­ing­ton, D.C. Press As­so­ci­a­tion.

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