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Your right to know

November 21, 2003

Imagine that you're a state employee and a person you don't know comes to your office, asking for a record related to what your agency does.

You're not sure what to do, so to avoid getting in trouble, you make up an excuse, like the non-existent "Maryland Privacy Act" and hope the person will go away.

Incidents like that happen far too often, according to the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association, which sent 15 reporters - acting only as citizens - to 15 state agencies to get 25 documents that according to law are in the public record.

The result? The records were provided only 60 percent of the time, and in many cases the reporters were asked improper questions, such as why they wanted the driving record of a state senator.

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In response, Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. said he will begin a new training program for state agencies.

We hope so, but we've heard these kinds of promises before. MDDC did the same thing in 2000 and found similar problems.

Newspapers aren't asking these questions to be nosy, but to protect the public.

If an elected official's driving record shows a series of violations, that tells the people who pay his or her salary a lot about the office-holder's respect for the law and concern for the safety of fellow citizens.

And if those same citizens want to take their family out for a meal, shouldn't they know whether or not the restaurant where they choose to dine has recently been cited for rodent infestation?

Of course they should, and they shouldn't need press credentials to get the people paid by the public to give them records that the law says citizens are allowed to have.

It's obvious from this latest check that many state employees aren't aware of what's public and what's not. The attorney general promises to do better, but we'll praise him when the next check finds public employees routinely granting citizens access to information they're entitled to.

If you're unsure how to get a public record, you can go to The Herald-Mail Web site at www.herald-mail.com and click on "Freedom of Information." And remember, state employees are not doing you a favor when they provide you with these records. It's your right to know.

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