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Access to information is your right

March 12, 2006|By Bob Maginnis

If you strive to be a good journalist, you try to see things from the point of view of the people you're interviewing. And so, yes, I understand that in many cases, government officials would rather not tell citizens - and the press - everything that they're doing.

For example, if you're a county official who wants to dismiss a department head, but you don't have a really good reason to do so, you might not want to the public to know how much you're paying him or her to just go away quietly.

And if you're a government official who signed a 10-year lease for a Dual Highway office that would cost taxpayers millions - enough, many would say, to buy a new building - you might want to keep the details quiet.

If you are head of a Hagerstown agency whose annual overtime budget is nearly spent even though the year is only halfway through, you might not want to explain what happened.

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Suppose you're a government official who has a written an emergency plan that few people in your agency have reviewed and that's a bit short on detail. Wouldn't you like a chance to spruce it up before anybody reads it?

Another example: If you are members of a group redeveloping a former federal facility and you change your mind about donating some of the assets to the community, well, why stir everybody up?

Why? Because in all the cases I've cited - real cases, all of them - citizens are paying the bills through their taxes. One the principles that guides the writing of Herald-Mail editorials is that the public has a right to expect fair value for its tax dollars.

Unfortunately, as government gets more complex, some government officials have gotten better at concealing information that they believe would be embarrassing or misunderstood by the public.

That's why a group of editors and reporters launched the first national "Sunshine Week - Your Right to Know" in 2005. The Herald-Mail participated then and will work again this year to promote the idea that citizens have the right to know what their government is doing.

During this coming week, articles will tell you just how to do that. If you have Internet access, you can also visit www.herald-mail.com and click on "Freedom of Information."

From there you will be linked to information on how laws governing access to information work in Maryland, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and on the federal level. There are even sample letters for use in making information requests under the laws of all three states.

When you're deciding what to ask for, it's important to remember that while you can ask for information that exists - reports, memos, lists of government employee salaries - you can't force the government to create a document that doesn't already exist.

For example, if you'd like to compare the salaries paid to department heads in the city governments of Frederick, Md., and Hagerstown, if either city government has done a report on that subject, you can request it. If neither has done such a report, you cannot force them to create one. You can get both lists and do your own comparisons, however.

My suggestion for citizens seeking information is to approach the receptionist in the agency that has what you want and ask to talk to someone about, for example, sewer connections.

That first person you speak to is unlikely to be the one who gives information to you. Their first reaction will most likely be to circle the wagons, clam up and wait for direction from a supervisor.

If you growl at this person, who is probably a nice, dedicated government employee, you will not help your cause.

Yes, it's your right to have the information, but under Maryland's law, for example, agencies have 30 days to comply, although records should be produced "immediately" if they're available.

You will be more likely to get what you need quickly if you're polite about it.

That does not mean you shouldn't be persistent. In the examples I cited at the beginning of this column, the information wasn't sought because the reporter or citizen was merely curious, but because they wanted to know how well something paid for by the people was working.

If a department head is dismissed by local government, shouldn't it be for a reason so good that he or she doesn't have to be paid to leave?

If a government agency is renting an office for a price that seems more like a mortgage payment on the Empire State Building, why is such luxury necessary?

If your agency's overtime budget is being expended too quickly, even though you told everyone that adding extra people would prevent that from happening, are you using good management practices?

And if your emergency plan seems a bit less than adequate, who decided it wasn't important enough to make sure it was better?

Figuring out the answers to these questions depends on having information - information that should be available, because you paid for it through your taxes. Sunshine Week isn't just about what the press wants to know, but about the what you as a citizen need to know.

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