By Rebecca Lessner
The “chilling effect” of the current fees for public information requests in Maryland has spurred lawmakers to propose an overhaul bill that will update the process.
Del. Bonnie Cullison, D-Montgomery County, along with over 50 good government and advocacy groups, proposed HB755 to would update Maryland’s current Public Information Act (MPIA), which she called outdated.
The law is 45-years old and in Cullison’s words, “out dates the Internet.”
“Currently there’s no uniform fee structure and any agency can charge as much as they want,” said Cullison.
The bill was heard by the House Health and Government Operations committee Wednesday, and faced opposition from representatives of local governments and law enforcement. They argued PIA deadlines are difficult to meet with current staffing levels.
The bill would create an appeals process for people who are denied documents under the Maryland Public Information Act or who are charged a fee of $250 or greater. Awards for damages would be allotted in the sum of $100 a day, not exceeding $1000 per violation, as well as attorney’s fees and other litigation costs.
The appeal would go through a new compliance board, consisting of three members who will not receive compensation, except travel expenses. The members will be appointed by the governor with the consent of the Senate. Each member can serve for three years.
“I really believe that if we are transparent then we will build trust in government, and that is a benefit for the entire state,” Cullison said.
The proposal comes as PIA requests increase, citizens express frustrations over not receiving their information, and fees fluctuate between agencies.
Currently, agencies are allowed to decide their fees as long as they are “reasonable,” causing large gaps and confusion.
“The fees shift from reasonable to actual..the current statute just allows so much leeway,” said Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, executive director for Common Cause Maryland.
Agencies worry about staffing to process requests
Les Knapp, Associate Director of Maryland’s Association of Counties, is concerned with some of the bill’s provisions, saying that understaffing is the cause for delays in PIA returns.
“We struggle to deal with far-reaching requests, fishing expeditions and even attempts to circumvent the judicial discovery process for litigation,” said Knapp. “Even if you do have a completely focused, reasonable request, that does take time and money.”
Town halls are often staffed with an average of ten people, “open one or 2 days a week, with a very small staff,” said Knapp.
In Laytonsville, Montgomery County, Knapp recounted how “one PIA request virtually shut the town hall down for two weeks,” saying the woman on staff only finished up the requested research after hours on her own time.
Maryland’s police and sheriff’s associations are also concerned over the ability to
meet deadlines, saying the haste to do so will encourage mistakes and shared private information.
“Documents are relatively easy when you do a word search on a computer,” said Chief David Larson on behalf of the Maryland Sheriff’s Association. “But also subjected to PIA’s are 911 calls and transmissions, radio transmissions between officers and dispatches.”
A PIA request for one officer’s video for a month would require an employee to review 150 hours of video.
However, frequent users of the MPIA need this information.
Press association: records needed for watchdog role
Rebecca Snyder, executive director of the Maryland-Delaware-DC Press Association, believes that with the increasing difficulties in obtaining public information, the bill will “make it clear to the public bodies what is expected of PIA’s.”
To gage the scope of the MPIA issue, last fall the press association sent PIA requests to all Maryland jurisdictions, asking for the number of PIA requests received and their distributions.
Snyder found in December of 2014, “more than a quarter of the public bodies failed to respond at all” to their requests.
“Costs for records ranged from 10 to 50 cents per page and fees for record services ranged from $12.75 to $50 per hour,” said Snyder.
The unpredictability of fees leaves press officials like Steve Gunn, editor of the Capital Gazette, feeling “at the mercy of local officials.”
Currently under the MPIA, the only way to appeal the denial of information would be taking the case to court, which can be costly and time consuming.
“Journalists need access to public records and information to tell their stories…to hold the government accountable,” said Snyder. “We can’t be a proper watchdog if government can ignore or reject our public information requests without just cause.”
Under the new bill, the custodian must issue denials within four days and follow up within 10 business days with a written, itemized index and an explanation of how the state’s interest in protecting the privacy of a person outweighs the disclosure.