Who wants records? Candidate, union and others

March 14, 2005|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

Editor's note: Across the country, newspapers and other media outlets and organizations are participating in Sunshine Week, a celebration and examination of freedom of information. The special week began Sunday. This is part two in a two-part series.

WASHINGTON COUNTY - The media aren't the only watchdogs and information seekers.

In fact, the bulk of the public information requests to the City of Hagerstown, Washington County government and Washington County Board of Education in 2004 were from private citizens, businesses, other government departments and assorted organizations.

The media filed just eight official requests out of the approximately 300 that the three governments received.

The Herald-Mail made five of them.

(This in no way means that the newspaper asked government for information five times in 2004. Most of the time, over and over each day, government figures - and other sources - provide information to reporters during spoken interviews and conversations.)


Through the Maryland Public Information Act, The Herald-Mail looked at all 300 of the requests - which also are public - to do this story as part of a national public information effort known as Sunshine Week.

Here's a sample of who asked for what from our local governments and why:

City of Hagerstown

Information being circulated about a Maryland gun bill was suspect, John H. Josselyn said, so he went to the sources.

Josselyn, the legislative vice president of Associated Gun Clubs of Baltimore, said he made the same request to about 90 police agencies in Maryland: How many assault weapons are being used in crimes, what types of crimes and were police officers assaulted or killed during these crimes?

About 95 percent of the departments responded, including the Hagerstown Police Department and the Washington County Sheriff's Department.

(Josselyn actually made his request Dec. 29, 2003, but Hagerstown gave it to The Herald-Mail with all of the 2004 requests.)

Hagerstown's answer to Josselyn was: "No such records exist which satisfy your request."

Josselyn said that was OK with him; it helped prove that people were making claims based on supposed data that didn't exist.

Josselyn said lawmakers relied too much on biased groups for information.

"You don't go to a mutual admiration society and ask if you're good looking," he said.

· Bernard Paul and his family moved from Brooklyn, N.Y., to Maugansville in November.

He said he worked in fashion in New York, but switched to cash-flow consulting - helping businesses find funding - here.

To start his own business, he needed clients, so he filed a public information request. He asked for a list of every vendor that does business with the City of Hagerstown.

But, Paul was discouraged when the information reached him after 28 days - just before the 30-day deadline in Maryland's law.

The list of more than 600 businesses only had the names, not addresses or phone numbers. It was what he asked for, but not what he wanted.

(Paul's request was at the beginning of 2005, but it, too, was given to The Herald-Mail with a 2004 packet.)

He said it's been cumbersome finding contact information on his own.

"I've been going through the Yellow Pages ...," he said. "I did about 20 (searches) and gave it up."

He thinks he might need a follow-up request to the city.

Washington County

Washington County received about 20 requests in 2004 for lists of registered voters - typical when elections roll around.

Teresa Spruill of Smithsburg bought a copy last March, as she ran for the Washington County Board of Education.

Spruill - who lost in the November general election - said the information reached her quickly on a CD-ROM.

But when she considered the expense of a mailing, she decided it wasn't worth it.

"I stayed as low-cost as I could," Spruill said.

· A Herald-Mail article about rising landfill fees made Regis L. Buckwalter of Hagerstown want to know more. The topic had come up at a meeting of the Washington County Commissioners.

In his letter requesting the minutes of that and other meetings, he concluded: "For me to better understand and oppose the fees, it is necessary to know how or what considerations were discussed if fees are raised."

A year later, Buckwalter said he received those minutes, but his quest to protest the fees died down. He didn't remember why.

Then he talked about his history of watchdog efforts.

"I won't give up fighting till the end. ... I agitate, educate and try to get things done," he said.

· Specialized Engineering of Ranson, W.Va., researches commercial properties when they're about to change hands. Any liens? Environmental complaints?

Usually not, which was the case for the Powers property at 16422 National Pike in Washington County, said Bob Denton, the company's director of environmental and geological services.

When Specialized Engineering asks government agencies for information about outstanding problems, "generally, the answer is that they don't have anything nine out of 10 times," Denton said.

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