Photo illustration by Enokson
By Len Lazarick
A wide range of nonprofit groups, including Common Cause and the newspaper association, are supporting a major reform of Maryland’s Public Information Act that will limit and standardize fees, close exemptions and establish a compliance board for appeals that could also levy fines.
Sponsored by Sen. Jamie Raskin and Del. Bonnie Cullison, both Montgomery County Democrats, the 20-page legislation (SB 695, which is not yet available online) would seek to cure major problems found by reporters, citizen groups and many others in getting release of documents and data from state and local governments.
“Important information is too often inaccessible to the public,” said Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, executive director of Common Cause Maryland. “Why can’t we get information about public officials’ decision making processes or the specifics of a government expenditure? This lack of access and government accountability threatens Marylanders’ public health and civil liberties.”
“Information needs to be open and searchable so the public and lawmakers can see how budget and policy decisions affect specific groups of people,” said Heather Iliff, president and CEO of Maryland Nonprofits. “Nonprofit organizations need access to government data to track their outcomes and provide better service to their communities.”
The list of groups backing the change includes the ACLU, the League of Women Voters, public health groups, environmental organizations, unions, and a number of progressive advocacy groups.
State version of FOIA
The Maryland Public Information Act (PIA) is the state equivalent of the federal Freedom of Information Act, and is a widely used tool to uncover information about government actions, contracts and spending.
The PIA applies not just to state agencies, but also to county and municipal governments, which sometimes have their own laws and regulations giving access to documents.
Individuals, reporters and groups are often flat out denied access to documents, or are charged large fees for assembling the material requested.
“Government agencies in Maryland have increasingly been charging excessive and arbitrary fees for public access to public records,” complained Tom Pelton, director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project.
According to a draft of the legislation, about half of its new language is used to create a Public Information Act Compliance Board which could review denials of documents and data and any fees charged over $250.
This three-member citizen board is modeled after the Open Meeting Compliance Board, but unlike that board, this board would be allowed to award damages, legal fees and levy penalties of $1,000 or $100 a day for violations of the act.
Compliance board an alternative to a lawsuit
Under current law, the only way to appeal a denial of access to government documents and data or the fees charged is to file suit in court.
The Open Meetings Compliance Board was established in 1991 to enforce changes in that act. Over the years, many legislative attempts to grant that board the power to issue even small fines have been rejected.
The Maryland Association of Counties, the Maryland Municipal League and the Maryland Association of Boards of Education are generally opposed to fines and penalties for violations of the Open Meetings Act, arguing that taxpayers would ultimately foot the bill.
A similar argument would apply to the Public Information Act Compliance Board.