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Del. Jill P. Carter, D-Baltimore. (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

Lawmakers seek options on public info requests

People who have attempted to access public records recently say they hope a government study that starts next month will make records more accessible.

“The proper way to get documents should not involve filing a lawsuit and getting a subpoena,” said Ron Ely, chairman of Maryland Drivers Alliance, which opposes speed cameras. “That took 11 months.”

Ely, who is not an attorney, sued the Prince George’s County town of Morningside (pop. 2,039) after it delayed and ultimately denied access to records on its speed-camera program. He represented himself in the suit, which settled last month.

“It sort of came to a head with this,” Ely said. “They hadn’t responded within the 30 days.”

The Maryland Public Information Act requires that public entities provide documents within 30 days of a request. The law also builds in a 10-day window for the agency to acknowledge the request, if there are documents responsive to the request, and whether those documents are likely to be withheld.

Ultimately, Ely received the records he sought and the town entered into a consent order agreeing to pay him $307 for his time and expenses.

In his May 29 order, Prince George’s County Circuit Judge Albert W. Northrop scolded Morningside for not complying with the 30-day limits and other requirements, such as maintain requested records and conducting a reasonable search for them.

Had the town “been compliant this lawsuit would not be necessary,” Northrop wrote.

A failing grade

Ely said he would have welcomed the option of taking his case to an administrative board, such as one that would have been created under a bill introduced by Del. Jill P. Carter, D-Baltimore.

Carter envisioned a three-member panel, similar to the Open Meetings Compliance Board, which could adjudicate conflicts related to access to public records.

However, the General Assembly stripped that language from the bill and, instead, tasked its Joint Committee on Transparency and Open Government with conducting a study on requests, denials and fees, similar laws in other states, and the costs to state and local governments.

The measure takes effect July 1. The committee’s report is due by January.

“Time is of the essence,” Carter said. “Maryland was given an F in transparency and public information.”

The state was given the failing grade on one portion of an accountability audit published by the Center for Public Integrity.

Maryland received an overall grade of D, but the state failed outright when it came to public access to information. One of the lowest scores was related to the public’s ability to resolve or appeal requests at a relatively low cost.

Complaints about agencies ignoring or delaying requests are neither unique nor new, according to one open government advocate.

“No government out there adequately funds its transparency efforts,” said Lucy A. Dalglish, dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, College Park and formerly the executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

This year’s legislative review provides an opportunity to adopt meaningful changes modeled on the laws of other states, such as Florida, which Dalglish said has some of the best open-records laws in the country.

‘It’s just me’

Ann Miller, a political activist and conservative blogger from Baltimore County, has waited 66 days for the Maryland State Department of Education to fulfill a request she admits was large. Miller sought documents related to the state’s implementation of Common Core standards.

Miller, in an interview Friday, said she would have been willing to agree to the single 30-day extension provided for in state law but the agency never even acknowledged her request. She called the department after the 30-day deadline passed and was told her request was being worked on.

“You send these requests out and they just disappear,” Miller said. “It requires constant vigilance on the part of the requester.”

Earlier this month, a department official told her the documents could be sent to her as early as June 20, but she had not received them as of that evening. Miller said the time and expense of going to court would have affected her decision to continue to seek the records.

“I’m not an organization,” Miller said. “I’m not an attorney. It’s just me.

A spokesman for the department acknowledged seeing Miller’s request but declined to answer questions directly related to it or the agency’s handling of it.

William Reinhard said the department does its best to keep up with requests.

“Some are simple, some are not,” Reinhard said. “In general we work really hard on these requests. Some come to me and I can get them done in a couple of days.”

Reinhard said the number of requests has ballooned over the years.

“When I first started here 14 years ago we’d see a half-dozen a year,” Reinhard said. “Now we see at least a half-dozen a month.”

And not just from the media. Reinhard said companies are using the act for what he called “corporate intelligence” on competitors who won contracts. Attorneys use it as a less expensive form of discovery in lawsuits, and researchers request data for studies.

“Only a very small percentage of the requests are from the media,” Reinhard said.

The Maryland Health Benefit Exchange also cited a heavy volume of requests and limited resources as reasons behind delays in responding to document requests.

The exchange, which oversees the state’s rollout of the Affordable Care Act, took nearly 60 days before denying, in May, The Daily Record’s request for documents related to a downward revision in the state’s goals for enrollees.

“We get to them as quickly as possible,” said Alison Walker, a spokeswoman for the exchange.