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The Public Information Act: A watchdog in need of teeth

September 01, 2000

The Public Information Act: A watchdog in need of teeth



Last week The Herald-Mail reported on a statewide project to assess how well Maryland's Public Information Act is working. Here's a hint: If your car didn't work any better than this law, you'd haul it to the junkyard. The General Assembly needs to consider some major changes in the 2001 session.

Think we're exaggerating? Jim Lee, editor of the Carroll County Times, said that a June check of public-record access by 20 Maryland newspapers revealed that across the state "public officials routinely deny access to even the most basic records."

The records sought included police department arrest logs, elected officials' driving records, school violence reports and nursing home inspection reports. In many cases, instead of turning over the records, public officials quizzed reporters on why information was being sought. In half the cases, they provided no documents to those seeking the information.

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Police and sheriff's departments were the worst offenders, failing to comply with requests in 74 percent of the cases. That's a record that Lucy Daglish, director of the Reporters' Committee for Freedom of the Press, called "just about the worse response in any state I've heard of."

That's not to say other agencies' records were perfect; only 60 percent of the school systems that were asked provided copies of their superintendent's employment contract. School violence reports were provided only 43 percent of the time.

Tom Marquart, managing editor of The Annapolis Capital, says state lawmakers believe the PIA law is only an issue with the media. If so, they're wrong. This matter is one that affects every citizen.

Do you doubt that? Do you want to know it if one of your neighbors is arrested? Do you want to know if the nursing home where your elderly parents' reside is safe and sanitary? Do you want to know if the school your children attend is safe?

If your answer to those questions is "no," then forget about this issue. But if you care about your own safety and the well-being of those in the community, then you'll push your state lawmakers to put some teeth in Maryland's Public Information Act.

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