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Project shows public information requests

March 22, 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. Today is Sunshine Sunday.

Monday: A sample of who asked for public records locally last year and why.




andrews@herald-mail.com

James Madison once said, "A popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or perhaps both."

In an exercise and test of "popular information" flow, The Herald-Mail looked at the process of obtaining public records, rather than the records themselves.

Using the Maryland Public Information Act, the newspaper asked to see every public record request received in 2004 by Washington County's three large, local branches of government: the county, the City of Hagerstown and the Washington County Board of Education.

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When the results were in, the county was many stacks ahead of the other two governments. It had received about 280 requests.

The school board had received 12 requests and the city had received eight.

Unofficial phone conversation requests are not tracked and were not included.

What information requests came up the most? What, as Madison might say, was most "popular"?

The runaway leader was 911 and emergency services. Of the approximately 280 requests for public information from the county, about 225 were for transcripts and tapes of emergency calls. Police, fire or rescue officials made almost every request.

Another 23 county requests involved the Board of Elections. Candidates or political party officials wanted voter registration records.

Other general requests were for letters and salaries. Some people wanted to know if there were any hazardous waste complaints for selected properties.

For the other two government bodies, the requests were too few and varied for trends - except for five by branches of the military that wanted lists of students. The military uses lists to recruit.

Maryland law says government information is public, unless it falls into a statutory exemption.

A government body has 30 days to answer a public information request, but is urged to respond "immediately" if the information is available.

The Herald-Mail filed the same request with all three governments on Feb. 2.

The City of Hagerstown responded on Feb. 22 and said the information would be ready within a few days. The Herald-Mail examined the records at City Hall on March 1.

Karen Giffin, the city's public information manager, put extra documents in the packet - a December 2003 request and three early 2005 requests - plus the city's responses in several cases. She offered to copy part or all of the packet, as well as e-mails from department heads telling her they received no requests in 2004.

Washington County provided about 335 photocopied pages, gathered from several departments, on March 2.

County Attorney Richard Douglas apologized for making the copies without providing an estimate first, but said it was the only way to get much of the information.

The county billed The Herald-Mail $61.65 for copies (15 cents each) and staff time to prepare the packet. By state law, the first two hours of work time is free, so the bill included only 45 minutes beyond that.

The school board barely met the statutory deadline, faxing information to The Herald-Mail on day 30.

Four days before the deadline, the school system was still trying to figure out how to get all of the information.

"There's no central cataloguing of (public information) requests," something that wasn't apparent before, public information officer Carol Mowen said afterward.

But, she said, the practice might be best left as it is.

Having each public request go through her office - which is standard for some government bodies - could create a delay, she said.

"We wouldn't to slow the flow of information by adding additional layers," she said.

The school system dropped a hard copy of the requests off at The Herald-Mail, at no charge, after it faxed them.

The Herald-Mail was part of each government's packet. The newspaper had filed four requests to the county in 2004, two to the city and one to the school board.

Douglas said his office has seen an increase in public information requests in recent years.

The number filed directly to his office increased from 13 in 2002 to 20 in 2003. Last year, his office directly received 27 requests.

Since the city started televising its city council meetings, it has received a request or two per week for copies of tapes, Giffin said.

The city charges $5 per taped hour, she said.

The school board, which also broadcasts and tapes its meetings, gets occasional requests for copies, Mowen said.

The school district charges for the cost of the tape.

There are exceptions - for example, for a relative of a student who was on TV.

"Usually ... we will provide it free of charge because it's for Grandma," Mowen said.

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