April 20, 2011

General Assembly moves forward with more transparency, but there’s still a long way to go

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By Megan Poinski
Megan@MarylandReporter.com

Maryland made strides toward getting more of its government information easily accessible to the public during the last General Assembly session, but transparency advocates say there is still a long way for the state to go.

“There is always room to improve the transparency of government,” said Jack Murphy, executive director of the Maryland-DC Press Association.

Bills that passed the General Assembly – and waiting for Gov. Martin O’Malley’s signature – would require most government agencies with electronic records to release them in an electronic format and form a new Joint Committee on Transparency and Open Government. Others would exempt information on participants at senior citizens’ activity centers from mandatory disclosure, require separate reports when people and corporations spend $10,000 or more in campaigning for a person or referendum, and create transparency websites for school districts in Baltimore and Prince George’s counties.

Several transparency-related bills did not make it through the General Assembly. These include requiring that government loans of $25,000 or more be reported on the spending transparency website and establishing a set time to file complaints that the open meetings law was violated. Other failed bills would have required that legislation impacting the state’s finances is posted online for a period before the General Assembly can vote on it, and requiring each school district to establish its own transparency website.

Electronic information

Government agencies keep many records on computers, but were not required to provide it in electronic format when members of the public asked for copies. Murphy said he has heard stories of people requesting government records and getting paper printouts of databases.

SB 740, proposed by Sen. Richard Madaleno, D-Montgomery, would require government agencies that have information in electronic formats to provide it in those formats if people request it. The bill unanimously passed both houses of the General Assembly at the end of the session.

Murphy said that if government information is in a spreadsheet or a database, members of the public can use those tools to sort and reorganize it, as well as look for data and do more with it.

“You can come to a very different answer than the one that the government is presenting,” he said.

This bill sounds like it advances transparency a great deal, but advocates said this bill has major problems.

Government agencies are allowed to strip out metadata before giving an electronic record to a member of the public. Metadata is data about data, and can include things like the day and time the record was created, who created it, and how often it was revised.

The bill has a sunset provision and expires in 2013. Murphy said that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. All government agencies are just starting to confront issues dealing with electronic records, and Murphy said nobody is sure how metadata should be handled. In two years, he said, it is quite possible that the issue will be figured out and there will be common standards in place in federal and state governments.

Additionally, the Department of Assessments and Taxation is exempted from the law, as long as the information has been transmitted to a contractor who provides the information at a reasonable cost.

Jim Snider of the policy institute iSolon.org said that the bill does nothing to ensure that government departments comply with the law. At the end of the day, he said, it doesn’t add up to much that is useful. Maryland is still behind the curve on making information available online. If the state were keeping up with others in the way of online transparency, he said the law needed to include penalties for noncompliance.

“In Maryland, we’re still fighting to get government records out of filing cabinets and online,” Snider said.

Campaign contributions

Maryland’s latest bill requiring disclosure of corporate campaign contributions came in the wake of the last year’s U.S. Supreme Court’s decision that treats corporate contributions the same as individual political contributions. The bill, sponsored by Del. Jon Cardin, requires disclosure of any political expenditure – either for a candidate or a ballot issue — of more than $10,000. These contributions also must be disclosed on corporate websites or annual reports to stockholders.

Wichmann said that Maryland would be the first state to require corporations to put information about political contributions in such a prominent place.

“We need to let the public and shareholders know which interests the company has,” she said.

What didn’t happen?

Several transparency bills didn’t make it very far. Marta Mossburg, a senior fellow at the Maryland Public Policy Institute, was disappointed that bills requiring disclosure of government loans greater than $25,000 did not get through the General Assembly. Del. Warren Miller’s bill was killed by the Health and Government Operations Committee.

“It was a political thing, and not in the state’s best interest,” Mossburg said.

A bill that gives a defined time to file a complaint with the State Open Meetings Law Compliance Board died in the 11th hour of the General Assembly as the two houses tried to come to a consensus on amendments.  Members of the House of Delegates wanted to limit it to one year, while members of the Senate wanted five years.

Snider said the death of the bill was unfortunate, and that either version would be fine. He said that what he most wants to see the General Assembly do is pass laws with greater enforcement clauses to ensure that state agencies follow them.

“Send us a signal that you are serious,” Snider challenged the General Assembly.

  • Peter Gallagher

    What a joke!  A bill that gives a defined time to file a complaint with the State Open Meetings Law Compliance Board weakens an already weak law and isn’t in the best interest of the general public.  Who is this bill intended to benefit?  Violators.

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