Details of the statewide audit

August 30, 2000

FoIA: Your Right to KnowDetails of the statewide audit

Police logs

Seventeen sheriff's departments denied access to routine arrest logs; seven departments granted the request either immediately or after a delay. One auditor's results were considered not applicable because the reporter did not follow up the request.

"One of the reasons we are an open society is because we know who the government has in custody," said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. "It just blows my mind the audacity people have in telling you you can't have the information."

Paul McMasters, First Amendment ombudsman at the Freedom Forum, said such secrecy erodes public confidence and the agency's credibility.

"What it comes down to is this: If public officials don't trust the people with public information, then how well are the people going to trust public officials?" he said.

Not all sheriff's offices were evasive. The sheriff in Queen Anne's County noted that no one had ever asked for an arrest log before, then promptly produced the document. He even took the time to explain the entries.


Sheriff Charles Crossley said later that he didn't see the big deal about releasing information that people could get by simply walking over to the courthouse.

"You try to serve the public, and if individuals have questions about things why give them a hassle?" he said.

Nursing home reports

The best compliance rate in the survey came from attempts to gain access to state nursing home inspection reports.

The report was turned over either immediately or after a short delay 14 times. Two auditors were referred to a state Web site or their local library for the reports, and in two counties the nursing home ombudsman did not return repeated telephone calls. One agency said the county did not have an ombudsman.

Dalglish said the higher compliance rate may be attributable to the ombudsman, who is directly responsible for the records, or to the fact that a lot of people routinely ask for the documents.

Overall the auditors received better treatment from nursing home ombudsmen than from any other public officials. A reporter in Calvert County got a nursing home report in eight minutes from a receptionist who added, "Have a nice day" as he was leaving.

Expense reports

Expense reports filed by public officials are among the most basic records that should be readily available, said Tom Marquardt, managing editor of the Annapolis Capital and chairman of the FOI subcommittee of the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association.

Still, auditors requesting expense reports of sheriffs or police chiefs were successful in only 13 counties.

In three counties the auditor was told that the sheriff did not file an expense report.

The auditor in Prince George's County was directed to the county finance office and then to the documents library, where the librarian took down the information he wanted and in a matter of minutes returned with the desired record.

Baltimore City officials, by contrast, first required the auditor to submit a request in writing and then took three weeks to respond with a one-paragraph letter signed only "Associate Legal Counsel," saying the request was not specific enough. The auditor again asked for the latest expense report filed by the police chief and three more weeks passed before the city managed a three-sentence response.

"We are in receipt of your letter but unfortunately we are unable to comply with your request at this time. We are in need of more information [sic] could you please clarify the term 'Expense Report of the Police Chief.' Please provide for us the specific type of report you are requesting."

School records

Auditors were able to obtain copies of their school superintendent's contract in 12 counties and copies of school violence reports in nine counties.

The lower compliance for school violence reports, Marquardt said, is not unexpected because the report is relatively new. The report does not include names or other identifying information, but does provide detail as to the number of violent incidents occurring at the school. School systems need to anticipate the kind of information parents might be looking for and have it ready, Marquardt said.

"They should also make sure parents know it is available," he said.

In Washington County, however, it took the auditor five days, many phone calls and several trips to the school administration before finally getting the report. In that time, he was shuffled from office to office and person to person before being helped.

"That's unreasonable," Marquardt said. "What they need to do is put themselves in the place of an individual looking for a document. Would they want to wait five days or be harassed?"

An auditor seeking the records in Anne Arundel County was greeted by a security guard and taken to an office where the head of security quizzed him about why he wanted the record, then said it was not public.

The head of security said the school wasn't trying to be uncooperative, but merely that there had been death threats against the superintendent.

"We just get nervous," he told the auditor. "Not that we have anything to hide."

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