April 18, 2015

Baltimore Sun: Maryland legislature revamps public information law

Obtaining documents from government agencies in Maryland is no simple task. The process typically involves filing a written request under the state’s Public Information Act and waiting up to 30 days — but can also lead to disputes over photocopying fees, redacted details or outright denials.

Reporters, lawyers, nonprofits and others have long had only one way to resolve disputes: in the courts.

Until now. The General Assembly, which ended Monday, approved legislation that establishes a public information compliance board and an ombudsman position to mediate complaints. The board will primarily handle complaints when government agencies charge fees above $350. The ombudsman will attempt to resolve disputes about redacted information, untimely responses, overly broad requests and denials.

A separate piece of legislation requires government agencies to post contact information for their public information officers.

“This is the first comprehensive update of the Public Information Act laws in 45 years,” said Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, executive director of the government watchdog group Common Cause Maryland. “For the first time under this law we’ll finally have oversight, which has been sorely missing in the past.”

Last summer, Common Cause Maryland helped organize a coalition of more than 30 nonprofit and labor groups to form Marylanders for Open Government, which pressed for changes.

The Maryland, Delaware, D.C. Press Association, which represents 114 member publications, including The Baltimore Sun, also supported the reforms.

Changes to the law shift Maryland from a “presumption of closure with public information” to a “presumption of openness,” said Rebecca Snyder, executive director of the press association.

Having to go to court to fight for public information prevents media outlets from reporting on important issues in a timely manner, she said. “I hear from members all the time about how hard it is to get information. Now there is someone to complain to.”
The cost for the Maryland attorney general’s office to staff the Public Information Act Compliance Board and the office of public access ombudsman is projected to be $199,900 the first year, according to the Department of Legislative Services’ fiscal note on the legislation introduced by Sen. Jamie Raskin and Del. Bonnie Cullison, Montgomery County Democrats.

“The bill could also have a significant operational and/or fiscal impact on state agencies, although the actual impact depends on the number of MPIA requests and related complaints filed as a result of the bill,” the note states.

Originally posted on The Baltimore Sun, available here.