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Putting the system to the test

September 01, 2000

Putting the system to the test



Office: Maryland Department of Transportation, Motor Vehicle Administration, Hagerstown office

Record requested: Driving record of state Sen. Donald R. Munson, R-Washington County.

Synopsis: It took two visits totaling 20 minutes to get the record.

Before July 1, when the law changed, anyone could see the driving record of any licensed driver by going to their local MVA office and filling out a four-part "Request for Motor Vehicle Administration Records" form.

The form, in addition to asking name and address, also asked for a reason for the request.

In requesting the driving record for Munson, The Herald-Mail surveyor wrote "interested."

Two MVA workers said more information was needed - specifically, the date of birth of the person whose record was requested and a better reason. They said just "being interested'' was not good enough.

They asked the surveyor why he was interested in the record. After being told it was because he had been asked by a friend, they advised, in a friendly tone, that the surveyor might want to rethink the request because Munson would be notified and given the surveyor's name.

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The surveyor returned after getting Munson's date of birth from the Maryland legislative Web site. The surveyor saw the same two clerks, and was told again they wanted a reason before releasing the record. This time the surveyor wrote "state senator, want to know more info on him."

Contacted later about the request for his record, Munson said, "My life is an open book as a public official."

The MVA search showed no entries on Munson's drivers license for the past 36 months.

New legislation that went into effect July 1, 2000, closes everyone's personal information except in cases where they indicate they want it open.

You can still get a person's driving record if you know his name and either the date of birth or his driver's license number.




Office: Washington County Board of Education

Record Requested: Schools Superintendent Herman G. Bartlett Jr.'s contract.

Synopsis: A formal FOIA request had to be filed to get the information. Contract received in 22 days from the office of the Human Resources director.

Workers at the Board of Education office initially did not know if the superintendent's contract was public, or who would have it. After some discussion, they directed the surveyor to Phillip Ray, director of human resources, who was unavailable.

After leaving several messages for Ray, the surveyor was told by Ray's assistant to make a request in writing.

Seven days after the initial visit, a handwritten request and an official typewritten request were filed.

On July 10, the surveyor received a copy of the superintendent's contract in the mail.

In the meantime, the superintendent himself had been informed of the request and called the surveyor at his home, the contact number he had left. The superintendent left a message for the surveyor to call him.

After several messages back and forth, the surveyor eventually was able to talk to the superintendent who said the school district "generally" did not respond to out-of-state FOIA requests. (The surveyor lives in Virginia).

"The code does not require it," he said.

The superintendent asked why the surveyor wanted the information and how his district was selected. He was told it was part of a public information project.

The superintendent promised to send the contract, but none was received.

In a follow-up interview, Bartlett said he decided not to send the contract because the surveyor "was the most evasive guy I've talked to."




Office: Hagerstown Police Department

Record Request: Arrest log.

Synopsis: Told such a record was not kept. Total time 3 minutes.

The surveyor asked a receptionist in the police station's lobby if there was an arrest log the public could see.

The receptionist said the department does not and has never kept an arrest log. The receptionist also advised that the police don't have to release arrest information "to anyone" and there was a privacy concern as well.




Office: Washington County Board of Education

Record Requested: School Violence Report

Synopsis: After much confusion over what the surveyor wanted, whether it was public, and who might have it, the record was released after five days. School district personnel were helpful, but it took two days to find out who could release the information and three more days before the record was released. (In fairness to school employees, the request was made at the time of high school graduations.)

Finding the right office to go to for a public record was trying. An arrow pointing to public information led the surveyor to the wrong place. The office had been moved, but the sign hadn't been changed.

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