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Local records open, with persistence

September 05, 2000

Local records open, with persistence



By DON WORTHINGTON / Staff Writer


Washington County officials say they have an open-door policy when it comes to public records.

The public, however, should be prepared to open more than a few doors - and perhaps walk down several hallways and make numerous telephone calls - to get the information they want.

Getting public records here can require persistence.

That's what two Herald-Mail reporters found in June when they participated in a Maryland-Delaware-District of Columbia Press Association project to determine how accessible government information is to the public.

The reporters visited five state and local agencies in Washington County, requesting six public records.

They did not identify themselves as reporters because test was supposed to gauge how government treats individuals, not the press.

In some cases, information was forthcoming in minutes. In other cases, it took weeks.

The two surveyors visited the Motor Vehicle Administration office in Hagerstown to request a driving record, the Washington County Finance Department for an expense report for Sheriff Charles F. Mades, the Washington County Board of Education for a school violence report and a copy of the superintendent's contract, the Washington County Commission on Aging for a nursing home report, and the Hagerstown Police Department for a copy of an arrest log.

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Frequently, the reporters were questioned - primarily as to their purpose in requesting the public documents in spite of the fact that the state's Public Information Act prohibits those kinds of questions.

In time, all except the request for the arrest log were granted.

After reviewing the way the requests for information were handled by their respective offices, most area officials said they are comfortable with how their personnel responded. They said their goal is for public information requests for items such as budgets to be answered quickly. More complicated requests take more time, they said.

Questions pertaining to the requests, while not permitted by law, allow the offices to make sure they know which record the requester wants, they said.

Front-line personnel, the people you would encounter first in an office, are usually supposed to refer requests for public information to a supervisor.

Supervisors can grant the request if they feel it's covered under the state's Public Information Act, or they can consult with attorneys if they have questions.

Sometimes, area offices will request written Freedom Of Information Act letters to start the attorney review process.

Questions and written requests can be used to thwart access, rather than help, say FOIA advocates.

"Citizens don't exercise the rights they have," said Mary R. Craig, media attorney for The Herald-Mail. When governments involve their lawyers in the process, the average citizen faces difficult obstacles.

"It's rare a citizen can hire a lawyer and take on the government," Craig said.

What's needed, Craig said, is better trained employees and to "make it easier to get (public information) on demand."

"Because (FOIA requests) are often an unusual request, people treat everything as confidential," she said.

Area officials said no major changes are planned as a result of the audit.

Washington County Administrator Ron Shoop said FOIA training is a part of the county's customer training seminars.

Hagerstown police and city government officials said the FOIA audit heightened their awareness, and they encouraged all public requests for city information to be directed to Public Information Manager Karen Giffin.

Herald-Mail reporters who conducted the local audit found that while most front-line personnel were helpful, many didn't know whom to turn to for the information requested.

The request for the police arrest log generated the shortest encounter. The Herald-Mail was told no arrest log was kept and, even if one was kept, those arrested have a right to privacy. The encounter took less than three minutes.

During a follow-up interview last week, Hagerstown Police Chief Arthur R. Smith said his department routinely provides news to area media.

He said even if there was an arrest log, the department faces a "gray area" between when the arrest information would be "current news" and when it becomes "arrest history."

News, he said, his department routinely provides to the area media. Arrest histories are not public records, he said.

"The law doesn't specify when it becomes arrest history," he said.

Smith said if a person was interested in finding out who had been arrested, they could come to the police station and ask the receptionist to ask a supervisor to pull the information from the 24-hour capsule.

The capsule is an internal, daily report the police department keeps to brief officers. It contains some public information on activity such as arrests, but also contains private information such as tips, people the department is looking for, and areas designated for increased patrol.

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