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A disparity exists in availability of electronic records

November 20, 2003|by JIM LEE/Carroll County Times

Some state agencies have embraced technology as a means of providing the public greater access to records. Others have been unable to get a handle on their use of computer files or, worse, have used computer technology as an excuse to deny access to public records.

Almost every state agency tested in an Aug. 21 survey did not offer public records in an electronic format, and did not release information included in a database.

"If there is a database and it does contain information that is clearly public, that agency should make an effort to make that available through a Web site," said Tom Marquardt, Editor of The Capitol in Annapolis and Chairman of the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association Freedom of Information Subcommittee.

The committee sent auditors to 15 state agencies seeking 25 public records. Among the records sought were property assessments, which are available online through the Property Tax Assessment office.

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In that case, auditors were able to quickly get the information they sought.

In other instances, however, getting the records was not as easy.

Joe Seidel, public information officer at the Maryland Occupational Safety and Health office, said he refers complex requests to the computer department to see if they can be accommodated.

"Our databases are set up kind of funny and sometimes when you want something in the database we aren't able to put that together," he said. "The specific information you might be requesting might not be in a manner we can run it for you."

A request for on-site inspection reports for the past year was met with a response asking the auditors to narrow their requests because even though the information is in a database, the agency would not provide it.

"It's hard to tell you exactly what we can and can't do," he said.

The agency did provide paper records when one auditor narrowed the request to a single county.

At the State Lottery Commission, a request for complaints against vendors also prompted a letter asking for a more narrow request.

Assistant Attorney General Laura Davies Tilley said that information is maintained in several different places.

"That is why it was taking time to put together," she said.

At the Department of Education, which has an extensive Web site containing complete statistics on such things as school violence reports, statewide testing and dropout rates, information about teachers whose certification had been revoked came on a single sheet of paper and included only the teachers' names.

Attorney General J. Joseph Curran said agencies have the option of whether to provide documents in electronic format.

"There are a couple agencies that have the ability to do that, but it is no requirement," he said.

Agencies do not have to create a document if one does not exist. Some agencies, however, refuse to release public information because it is in a database and they consider printing the database creating a public document.

Robert McDonald, chief if opinions and advice at the Attorney General's office, said part of the problem is agencies having the systems people who understand databases and can make the information available.

"The line in our advice has been if it is programming, you are not required to do programming," he said. "If it is not programming, then you should go ahead and do it."

He said as agencies move away from proprietary databases and into more widespread formats, such as Access or Excel, the programming concern should not be an issue.

"With those, extracting the exempt fields from the database is something a reasonably intelligent person can do," he said.

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