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What government isn't telling citizens should be their biggest worry

September 01, 2000

What government isn't telling citizens should be their biggest worry



Twenty five years ago, not long after I began work at The Herald-Mail, I was assigned to interview one of the top investigators for a local police agency.

About what, I don't remember. But I'll never forget what he did as I pulled out my notebook and began to ask questions.

"Wait a minute," he said, "I want to show you something."

He opened his desk drawer, pulled out a packet of newspaper clippings and began to explain how, in each case, the writer had misrepresented what the investigator had said or done.

"If you do anything like this, you will never get anything from me," he said.

In other words, my future success as a police reporter, or lack of same, would not depend on whether I was accurate, but on whether the subject of my stories liked the way I was writing him up. I thought it was unfair, but was smart enough not to say so as the time.

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I thought about that crusty old gentleman this week when I read the series of articles done as part of a statewide project on how agencies in Maryland perform when asked for information that should be available under the state's Public Information Act.

Pretty poorly, as it turned out. In June, 20 Maryland newspapers conducted an audit of public agencies in their circulation areas, seeking access to documents like police departments arrest logs, driving records of local state senators, school superintendents' employment contracts and nursing home inspection reports.

In about half the cases, they got nothing, or were grilled about who they were and why they wanted the information. In one case, a Motor Vehicle Administration clerk told a Herald-Mail reporter that if he smiled when he made his request, it might improve his chances of getting what he'd asked for.

Now as much as we might hope that everyone who asks for information does so in a polite way, that law doesn't require people to grin or be charming when seeking public documents that, in most cases, were created with their tax dollars.

Some of these agencies' poor performance is undoubtedly due to some bureaucrats' natural desire to control everything on their turf. Some can be blamed on bureaucratic inexperience, because few private citizens seek this kind of information, probably out of fear of some sort of retaliation. For example, would you ask for the school superintendent's employment contract if you were afraid that there might be adverse consequences for your school-age children?

Probably not, but just because you've never asked for such things, or even thought about whether you could do so, is no reason to conclude this law is unimportant.

On the matter of arrest reports, for example, would it matter to you if one of your neighbors was arrested after a domestic dispute, or for drunken driving? Wouldn't you want that information so you could steer clear of him for awhile, or decide whether you should let him drive your kids to the movies with his own children?

And if you've got elderly parents, doesn't it make sense to know more about a nursing home than how pretty the flower beds out front look? If there've been complaints about sanitation and/or mistreatment by staff members that have been reported to state inspectors, paid by your tax dollars, shouldn't you know about that?

The superintendent's contract you probably know about already, because the local newspaper reported that, along with the salaries of most people on the public payroll. That's a list that makes most of those on it very unhappy, but which, again, tells you how your tax dollars are being spent.

it may not seem like it based on this latest audit, but from my viewpoint, things have improved over the last two decades. At one time, getting the most routine stuff from some local police departments depended on developing long-term personal relationships with the custodians of the information.

Now agencies routinely prepare press releases, some even faxing them to the media. And in Hagerstown Chief Arthur Smith is offering reporters access to the department's daily capsule report, which includes the names of those arrested that day, with the provision that certain things, like the names of suspects not arrested, may be blacked out to protect their rights.

Could more be done? Of course. During the week of July 4, citizen volunteers could celebrate their freedom by seeking access to public documents. If students made the requests as part of a project, it could even be worked into the American History curriculum, so that students would not only know what their rights are under this law, but what events prompted lawmakers to pass it.

Elsewhere in this section is information about how to use Maryland's Public Information Act. As you consider how you might do that, remember that it's your tax money that funds government and that whether it becomes your master or your servant depends on how much you know about what it's doing.

Whatever you do, you'll be further ahead than I was 25 years ago when I was trying to deal with one veteran policeman with a dislike for pesky reporters. After I reported (accurately) that he and his squad failed to clear a supermarket of patrons after someone phoned in a a bomb threat, he never spoke to me again.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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