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Maryland flunks public access test

August 30, 2000

FoIA: Your Right to KnowMaryland flunks public access test



By JIM LEE / Editor, Carroll County Times


People visiting government offices in search of school violence reports, routine police arrest logs or other public documents have about a one-in-four chance of immediately getting what they are looking for.

Half the time they will get nothing.

And a lot of the time they will be quizzed about who they are, who they work for and why they want the record, in direct violation of the state's Public Information Act.

A June 15 audit of Maryland public record access conducted by 20 newspapers from across the state, including The Herald-Mail, revealed that public officials routinely deny public access to even the most basic records.

Sheriff and police departments were the worst offenders, denying access to routine arrest logs 74 percent of the time.

"The police think they have some sort of immunity from complying with the law, but that's just about the worst response in any state I've heard of," said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

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Fourteen states have done similar open records audits.

The Access Maryland project was organized by the Freedom of Information subcommittee of the Maryland-Delaware-District of Columbia Press Association.

In addition to arrest logs, newspaper representatives were asked to get a driving record from the state MVA of the state senator from their district; the latest expense report for the sheriff; their school superintendent's contract, the latest school violence report; and a nursing home inspection report.

Among the findings:

HEIGHT="6" ALT="* "> Sheriff's departments or city police denied access to arrest logs 74 percent of the time.

HEIGHT="6" ALT="* "> County nursing home ombudsmen provided nursing home reports 74 percent of the time.

HEIGHT="6" ALT="* "> Police chief or sheriff expense reports were provided 68 percent of the time, excluding three instances in which the finance department indicated that the chief did not file for expenses.

HEIGHT="6" ALT="* "> School officials provided copies of the superintendent's contract 60 percent of the time, and provided school violence reports 43 percent of the time.

HEIGHT="6" ALT="* "> MVA offices complied with state law and released the drivers' records of senators - minus personal information that is closed - 47 percent of the time.

"What this audit proves is that the Public Information Act is not being followed as much as the legislature would like to think," said Tom Marquardt, managing editor of the Annapolis Capital and chairman of the FOI subcommittee.

"We're looking for a re-examination of the PIA to see if elements of that law need changing or updating."

Maryland's Public Information Act was adopted in 1970. The act covers state government and, on the local level, all counties, cities, towns, school districts and special districts, and it applies to any records received or originated by a public body doing public business.

Legislators have been reluctant to look at open records issues in the past, Marquardt said.

"The legislature believes it is a media bill or a media effort," he said. "Our case is it's not. The public needs access to public documents. This audit shows that somebody in the general public coming in is going to be denied the document or harassed for asking for the document."

While the state law includes many exceptions where records are closed - such as an individual's medical history or work record - people controlling public record access generally should turn over all other documents without question to anyone who asks for them.

In the Maryland audit, people attempting to get records were asked for identification 46 percent of the time and were required to provide identification 22 percent of the time.

Auditors were asked why they wanted the record 35 percent of the time and were asked for whom they worked 18 percent of the time.

A public nuisance


Across the country, public officials are shutting citizens out of the governing process and, at the same time, are complaining about the fact that no one votes and no one wants to get involved, said Paul McMasters, First Amendment ombudsman at the Freedom Forum.

"The citizens who pay the bills are regarded as nuisances," he said. "If we had 50 percent compliance with the law in any other area of government operations there would be a justifiable outcry from the citizens. But too often public officials are scofflaws when it comes to open meetings and open records."

Compliance problems can often be reduced with training, said Frosty Landon, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government.

The Coalition formed in 1996 as an effort to convince legislators to update Virginia's open records law. A 1998 open records audit in Virginia helped push reforms along.

"A lot of folks in government don't purposely violate the law," Landon said. "They just don't understand it."

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