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Know what you want, and be specific in requests

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

Getting safety inspection reports about local businesses, lists of appraisers who have complaints filed against them or driving records should be a quick and easy process, but residents can improve their chances if they know ahead of time what they want and are specific in their requests.

"It is a mistake for anybody in the public to blindly ask for records that may not exist," said Tom Marquardt, editor of the Annapolis Capital and chairman of the Maryland-Delaware D.C. Press Association Freedom of Information Subcommittee.

The first step, he said, is to make sure the record exists and to know what it is called and who has it.

People should not, however, have to endure rigorous questioning about why they want the record or who they work for.

"If the official wants to ask a question to help him narrow the search or find the record, that's very reasonable," he said. And it is reasonable to ask the person to be specific in making the request.

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Attorney General J. Joseph Curran said state workers have an obligation to respond quickly and courteously to requests from the public.

"If you are taking the time to write me a letter, we owe you the courtesy of a letter back, either with the information or saying we don't have it," he said.

Robert McDonald, chief of opinions and advice at the Attorney General's office, said people requesting records should insist on a response from the agency, even if the answer is no.

"If they aren't getting a reasonably prompt, written response that tells them why they are not getting it, what the legal reason is and what their remedies are," they should ask for one, he said.

If the record doesn't exist, the agency should say it doesn't exist.

"People are certainly entitled to that, otherwise you don't know whether you are being stonewalled or whether there is some legitimate reason why you aren't getting the record."

Answers that include denials should also include the next step for the requester. Usually that means an administrative appeal higher up in the agency.

"That is supposed to be spelled out in the denial letter as well," McDonald said. "They are supposed to know why and they are supposed to know what remedy they have."

If agencies don't do that, Curran said, people should contact the attorney general's office.

"If a complaint comes to us we will track it down," he said.

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