We’re generally in favor of any legislation intended to give the public an easier time navigating the state’s public information laws.
Delegate Jill Carter’s bill to create an oversight body to which the public can appeal denials of requests for government information is a good step in helping balance out a law that is far too favorable to public officials.
Carter’s legislation, if enacted, would create a three member State Public Information Act Compliance Board to review and resolve complaints arising from public requests for documents and other information from municipal, county and state governments.
As the law stands, any rejection of those requests have to be taken to circuit court — a potentially costly course of action, and one that elected officials and their civil service hope will discourage requestors from going any further. This is particularly the case when government officials really don’t want this information getting out.
And it can happen even if the information being sought is clearly in the public domain.
Case in point: The settlement signed between Frederick Community College’s board of trustees and Frederico “F.J.” Talley, who served only six months before leaving the position in a cloud of speculation. The News-Post requested a copy of the contract. The trustees refused. The next step was circuit court and a ruling in the paper’s favor.
The three-member compliance board would be an interim step and would be able to issue an opinion on any complaints brought before it and order release of the information. This is something we wholeheartedly support, and is a power lacking in the toothless Open Meetings Act Compliance Board, which rules on violations of that statute, but has no power to enforce any penalties and can only release an advisory opinion that public bodies can choose to ignore.
A favorite tactic used to discourage the public from seeking documents and other information is to make the request so expensive that applicants can’t afford it.
Case in point: According to The Baltimore Sun, the board overseeing the Maryland Health Exchange authorized charging those making requests for information. Given the legislature is reluctant to launch a formal investigation of what led to the catastrophic failure behind the exchange’s rollout — probably one of the worst rollouts of a state program in Maryland history — this is a particularly egregious snub to those representatives of the public trying to find out what went wrong.
The interim director acknowledged the fees are intended to discourage Public Information Act requests. The cover-up continues.
Under Carter’s legislation, applicants can file an appeal for anything costing more than $500.
This amount is still too high and would still be a deterrent to many members of the public seeking government information.
Case in point: The Medical Examiners Office charges $125 for autopsy reports that are rarely more than five or six pages. It’s an exorbitant amount for a copy of a record that had to be produced anyway and at most uses 25-cents-worth of copy machine toner. (Or nothing, if the document was scanned and emailed.)
We’d like the commission to have authority to set fees for public information based on the actual cost of producing the information — which includes labor costs to collate the documents. Local authorities should not have it in their power to determine that the cost of a sheet of printer paper be set at $50 simply because they don’t want to surrender what is already public information, or because they feel the public’s right to know is “burdensome.” This was the argument used by Carolyn Quattrocki, the interim director of the dysfunctional and highly criticized exchange.
Finally, the board should have the authority to demand that information kept electronically be supplied electronically. Some jurisdictions artificially inflate labor costs by printing off emails that could simply be forwarded at the push of a button.