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FOI helps us get access to public information

March 12, 2006|By LIZ THOMPSON

We call it a PIA (for Public Information Act) or an FOI (for Freedom of Information Act) but I am more and more convinced that government employees call it a CYA (for Cover Your ... well, you get the point).

Maryland's Public Information Act is an important tool that newspapers use frequently.

Too frequently, actually.

A lot of information that should be public is not provided to the media, or to the public, unless it is requested through a PIA or FOI letter.

PIA and FOI are the same thing, they are just called different names in different states. The most common acronym used is FOI.

Government staffers often answer our requests for information with "put it in writing."

That's not a response that slows us down but it might be somewhat intimidating for a person not accustomed to dealing with government officials.

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Most information we seek is, without question, public. Frankly, we shouldn't have to make our request in writing and neither should you.

That's a mindset we have been unable to change - at least so far - so when asked to put our request in writing, we do so in the form of an FOI request.

Here's what I'm talking about:

When three members of the Hagerstown City Council went to a conference in North Carolina in December, we asked for an accounting of their expenses. We were asked to put our request in writing. We did, but come on. We were asking for an accounting of taxpayers' money used to pay the costs of the trip.

No question - none - that such information is and should be public.

With our FOI in hand, staffers usually produce the information. I don't think anyone wants to keep us from getting the information. I think they want to be able to say to their boss - whether it's a department head or an administrator or an elected official - "Hey, I had no choice. They filed an FOI."

There are times we don't bother to ask first, either because we know we are about to ask for a lot of information that might need to come from multiple sources or because we want to start the FOI clock ticking. Generally, government bodies have 30 days to respond to an FOI. The length of time varies from state to state.

While there also is a timeline with the federal government, the reality is they take as long as they want at that level. I'm still waiting for a response to a federal FOI I filed about three years ago. Every once in a while, a different person from a different department in the federal government will call me and say they found my FOI in a file and they will "certainly get right on it."

The story we were doing then is long gone now, but I never tell any of the federal people that. I'm curious to see if I'm ever going to get a response.

My message to people is don't let "put it in writing," slow you down. If you don't know how to file an FOI, go on our Web site at www.herald-mail.com and click on Freedom of Information. You'll find explanations of the law for Maryland, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. You'll also find sample letters to help you write an FOI.

So go ahead. Help a government staff member CYA.

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