Public records not always public

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

A test of Maryland state agencies has revealed that people seeking public records have about a 60 percent chance of getting what they are legally entitled to, and often they will face improper questioning about who they are, why they want the record and who they work for.

In response, J. Joseph Curran Jr., Maryland attorney general, said his office will launch a new training initiative for state agencies.

"We've made recommendations and we'll follow through with our own training, and we'll offer to do training at each of the local agencies with our line people and the people who will be getting these (public record) requests," Curran said.

On Aug. 21, the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association's Freedom of Information Subcommittee sent reporters identifying themselves only as private citizens to 15 state agencies seeking a total of 25 public records.


The committee chose public records that residents and businesses could reasonably expect to want and were legally entitled to get under the Maryland Public Information Act. Among them were the number of teachers who had their certification revoked, real estate property assessments, complaints against real estate appraisers, routine expense reports from public officials and restaurant inspection reports.

Among the findings:

-- Requesters were denied records in 10 instances, or 40 percent of the time;

-- A requester was denied a public record because it contained information about a state senator;

-- With the exception of assessment records, which are available on line, no public agency would provide public records in electronic format.

-- People seeking records often had to answer questions concerning who they were, why they wanted the record and who they worked for, which is not permitted.

Facing interrogation

Surveyors seeking teacher decertification records, driving records and restaurant inspection reports were among those who faced rigorous questioning from state workers.

That type of treatment, although illegal, is typical, according to Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee For Freedom of the Press.

"It does not matter who you are, why you want the record or what you are going to do with it," she said. "Public is public. I am always astonished at the number of people who cannot comprehend that."

The Reporters Committee For Freedom of the Press is a 33-year-old organization that advocates for free speech issues.

Dalglish said that, in most cases, the workers don't have evil intentions in making access difficult. Instead, she said, many simply aren't aware of the laws regarding public records.

"They get into more trouble for releasing a record they shouldn't than they do refusing to release a record they should," she said. "That's always going to be a problem."

Curran said part of the attorney general office's training will focus on that issue.

"It may well be that we just have to emphasize in a training situation that public records are available for review by the public," he said.

MVA fails again

A similar MDDC Press Association audit conducted in 2000 revealed that the state Motor Vehicle Administration routinely denied people access to driving records. As a result of the audit, the MVA pledged to provide training for workers to improve compliance.

The laws have changed since then, and some of the information that was available in 2000 is now closed. People can, however, still get a three-year driving record of an individual, and an MVA request form specifically notes that record as one that is releasable to anyone requesting it.

In this audit, two of three regional MVA offices denied requests for the information about a local official's driving record.

In one office, the person seeking the record was told that the "Maryland Privacy Act" forbids disclosure of the information. No such act exists.

In another office, the worker called up the record on a computer, but when he saw it belonged to a state official he refused to release it.

Tom Marquardt, editor of The Capital in Annapolis and chairman of the MDDC Freedom of Information Subcommittee, said the two denials are particularly appalling.

"Here you have an agency that was forewarned by a study less than three years ago that proved the point that the MVA has to release these records," he said. "Yet when you have someone denying the record and saying it is part of the 'Maryland Privacy Act' when the act doesn't exist, it shows they are making this up as they go along and they haven't been educated."

He said denying access to a public record because it is information about a state senator is even more egregious.

"That's a cover-up," he said.

Maryland Department of Transportation Secretary Robert Flanagan said the law on access is clear, and the records should have been released.

"The effort to protect your local official is not the appropriate response," he said. "We need to evaluate the system and have a better result."

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