Instead of a service that was once free, Maryland citizens and businesses will now have to pay a $190 annual subscription fee to the Secretary of State’s office if they wish to access the most timely government information published by the Maryland Register.
Updates to current and proposed state regulations, hearing notices, executive and legal opinions, and more, were available online to the public every other Friday for free, and had been for years.
Now, due to procedure changes at the Register — a bi-weekly, state-run regulations publication — those who can’t or won’t subscribe will have to wait about five extra days to view information that had been available in real-time for years.
The Register also eliminated an easy-to-use HTML viewing option that free users easily accessed. Users will now have to scroll through a roughly 60-page document to find an individual piece of information by using the remaining PDF option.
“Because of the labor intensive work with the HTML version, personnel losses and budget cuts, we took the HTML [option] off the site,” said Frederick Smalls, a State Office spokesman. “Out of the 60 or 70 calls a day received, there have been no complaints about taking [it] down.”
Center Maryland columnist Josh Kurtz did complain in his column last week, but officials initially insisted that the Kurtz column was mistaken. Kurtz wrote:
“It means our government is a little less open than it was a couple of weeks ago. It means that people — or more likely, special interests — with 190 bucks to spare get a leg up on ordinary citizens when it comes to find out what‘s going on, or commenting on, or mobilizing against, proposed new regulations. And you can’t help but worry and wonder where this little diminishment of sunshine will lead.”
Maybe the Register Office hadn’t received any complaints, but one organization that relies heavily upon the information in the Maryland regulations supplement isn’t happy. Last week the Maryland Chamber of Commerce sent an e-mail to members of the General Assembly’s new Joint Committee on Transparency and Open Government to complain about the new website changes.
“Delays in posting the online version are a concern, as it shortens the time period in which we [and others in the public] have to comment on proposed regulations, or else forces them to pay for a subscription,” wrote Ronald Wineholt, the Chamber’s vice president of government affairs in a Nov. 3 e-mail following up on the issue he raised with Sen. Bill Ferguson, D-Baltimore City, and Del. Heather Mizeur, D-Montgomery, at a conference earlier in the day. “At a time when the administration is conducting a 60-day review of all state regulations, the last thing you want to do is make it harder for the public to see state regulations in the Maryland Register.”
The Secretary of State’s office offered no apologies for the change. It took several attempts by Maryland Reporter to get the office to confirm that changes to the publication schedule, the online format and the fee even took place.
“We did not implement a new policy,” said Smalls during a Nov. 3 morning conference call with Maryland Register communication’s staff. “The Maryland Register is available free online the way it has been for a number of years. … Nothing has changed.”
Later in the day during a follow-up media call, Small reiterated that changes had not taken place and said Kurtz’s column was wrong.
The group did, however, acknowledge a “policy change” they said they considered and even mistakenly posted online, but took down a few days later. In that proposed change, the free, online PDF link would only have been accessible once a quarter and would have been replaced by a one-line search tool.
“We considered a new policy,” Smalls said. “It was announced inadvertently. Once we realized that announcement had gone out, we immediately pulled it.”
But since the “inadvertent” posting of that announcement, the HTML version and the Friday viewing option have disappeared.
It wasn’t until Maryland Reporter provided the Register with the Chamber of Commerce Nov. 3 e-mail that the Register retracted its earlier statements and confirmed the free online viewing day had changed, format changes had occurred and real-time viewing for online users required a paid subscription.
“Mr. Wineholt is correct,” Smalls said referring to the Chamber e-mail. Smalls also said the changes took place “about a month ago.”
The free online edition of the Maryland Register is available to the public every other Wednesday, according to Register Senior Editor Gail Khakring.
In making the change to real-time access only for subscribers, the Maryland Register is going in the opposite direction from the General Assembly. This year, the legislature dropped an annual $800 subscription fee for “up to the minute” access to legislative action that was only posted to the general public after midnight the next day.
Mike Gaudiello, the director of information services at the Department of Legislative Services, said the change was made to “provide better access to constituents.”